Could fungi survive on Mars?

The European Space Agency sent fungi from the harshest conditions on Earth into space to see how they would fare in Mars-like conditions at the International Space Station. What could that say about life on the Red Planet? 

European Space Agency/Reuters
This hand out image taken from the European Space Agency's Mars Express spacecraft shows the Martian north polar ice cap with layers of water, ice and dust for the first time in perspective view.

After sending tiny fungi that typically live in the Antarctic rocks to the International Space Station (ISS) for experiments, European scientists found they were able to survive in conditions similar to those on Mars.

The fungi were subjected to harsh, Mars-like conditions for 18 months that included dry, freezing temperatures; thin air; ultraviolet radiation; and an atmosphere composed mostly of carbon dioxide. They persevered, with more than 60 percent of their cells left intact and their DNA stable at the end of the experiment, scientists reported in an announcement today.

The findings will help astrobiologists understand how living organisms could survive on Mars, and about how life may have originated and evolved in environments like that of the Red Planet.

“The results help to assess the survival ability and long-term stability of microorganisms and bioindicators on the surface of Mars, information which becomes fundamental and relevant for future experiments centered around the search for life on the red planet,” said Rosa de la Torre Noetzel from Spain's National Institute of Aerospace Technology, a researcher on the project.

The researchers used two species of cryptoendolithic fungi, meaning they're capable of surviving hidden in cracks in rocks, collected from McMurdo Dry Valleys in the Antarctic Victoria Land. This area is known for its extreme climate, the most similar to Mars that can be found on Earth.

The fungi were placed in tiny cells on a platform for experiments known as EXPOSE-E, which was developed by the European Space Agency to test biological and biochemical materials in space. The platform was sent to the ISS in a vehicle that attached to the exterior of the space station for 1.5 years, during which the fungi were battered by harsh Martian conditions.

The project, which was described in the journal Astrobiology in December, is part of an experiment known as the “Lichens and Fungi Experiment.”

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