Mars' toxic soil dashes hopes of supporting life forms

Alicia Guzman
July 8, 2017

Ultraviolet (UV) radiation streaming from the sun "activates" chlorine compounds in the Red Planet's soil, turning them into potent microbe-killers, a new study suggests. If they can't survive there, it significantly lowers our chances of finding life on Mars - life that looks similar to organisms on Earth at least.

Obviously, more research must be done before we give up on Martian potatopia.

Scientists have speculated on the influence that perchlorates may have on the habitability of the planet, since their discovery there several years ago. In 2015, the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter spotted signs of perchlorates in what appeared to be wet and briny streaks that seeped down Martian gullies and crater walls. When mixed together, the resulting compound was 10 times more toxic to bacteria.

If the salty brines trickling across the rocks on Mars really are concentrated perchlorate streams, that's not an environment fit for sustaining life.

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Chemical compounds called perchlorates, which are types of salts that are also used in rocket fuel, are common on the Martian surface and when they interact with ultraviolet light, like the kind of radiation that beats down through the thin Mars atmosphere, they are deadly for a certain kind of bacteria, according to the University of Edinburgh in Scotland. The results were definitive: Bacteria were wiped out twice as quickly when perchlorates were present.

The pair emphasised that they had only tested the effect of perchlorates and UV on one species of bacteria -.

Their experiments showed that when magnesium perchlorate was exposed to UV radiation similar to that on Mars, it became capable of killing bacteria much more effectively than UV light alone.

Jennifer Wadsworth, a University of Edinburgh postdoc, and her adviser, astrobiologist Charles Cockell, subjected Bacillus subtilis, bacteria that commonly contaminate spacecraft, to Mars-like conditions in the lab. The briny patches would be likely to concentrate perchlorates, making the streaks even more toxic than the surrounding soil.

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This is bad news for any potential life on Mars.

The study observed some #Perchlorates, believed to be brine streaks on the surface of the planet. "This should greatly reduce planetary protection concerns as well as any concerns about infection of astronauts", he said.

Scientists will have to dig a lot deeper to find life beneath the Red Planet's penetrative UV raze, say experts. After that, three spacecraft, including the Curiosity rover (which is still exploring Mars) affirmed the finding.

There still remains some hope for surface microbes.

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