Dec 10, 2017 I Brett Tingley

New ‘Air-Eating’ Bacteria Lends Hope to Search for Alien Life

Over the last several years, the search for alien life has been heating up thanks to discoveries made both in space and here on Earth, prompting one top SETI researcher to predict that we’re only a decade or two away from finally discovering we’re not alone. While we all wish humanity’s first contact will resemble Close Encounters of the Third Kind, the truth is we are likely going to discover microbial life in space long before we make contact with intelligent bipedal aliens. But hey, microbes are cool right? They’re certainly a lot less frightening than green men with ray guns.

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If only.

Two discoveries this week may further add the likelihood that our first cosmic neighbors will be of the microscopic variety. First, a new study found that Jupiter’s moon Europa displays evidence of active plate tectonics, indicating there is likely a subsurface ocean beneath the moon’s surface. Plate tectonics could also mean that the salts on Europa’s surface could potentially be reaching such an ocean and creating nutrients that any alien ocean life would need to survive. So, while not quite a discovery of life, it’s a discovery of a possibility of sustaining life. That’s hopeful.

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The icy surface of Jupter's moon Europa could be hiding a nutrient rich ocean. Or nothing.

Next, a team of scientists from the University of New South Wales in Australia have discovered a form of life unlike anything they’ve seen, and it might indicate that life in space could be more common and robust than we think. The team gathered soil samples from some of the most barren, ice-free parts of Antarctica, and traces of microbial DNA were found in some of the These environments are extremely hostile to life and offer almost no capacity to produce energy even through photosynthesis, so the team was quite surprised to find that any microbes could live there.

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Adam's Flat, Antarctica, where one of the samples was taken.

Study senior author and UNSW scientist Associate Professor Belinda Ferrari says all the evidence points to the bacteria essentially “eating” air, offering us new possibilities for how and where life can be found:

We found that the Antarctic microbes have evolved mechanisms to live on air instead, and they can get most of the energy and carbon they need by scavenging trace atmospheric gases, including hydrogen and carbon monoxide. This new understanding about how life can still exist in physically extreme and nutrient-starved environments like Antarctica opens up the possibility of atmospheric gases supporting life on other planets.

Their findings have been published in Nature. The discovery of these bacteria builds on similar findings which have been showing that microbes can sustain themselves just about anywhere, using whatever resources are available - even eating radiation. Life could be lurking almost anywhere in space, clinging to the surfaces of asteroids or lying at the bottom of deep craters on seemingly barren moons. I mean, to think Earth somehow is unique because it sustains life is kind of narcissistic, right? We’re not that special.

Brett Tingley

Brett Tingley is a writer and musician living in the ancient Appalachian mountains.

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