Earth has some geological similarities to Mars, such as areas made up of sandstone and clay. A group of researchers worked in the Atacama Desert, in northern Chile, finding an element that could change the way we explore the red planet: the dark microbiome.
In charge of the work at Piedra Roja, in the Atacama, was the astrobiologist Armando Azua-Bustos. This Chilean is a research scientist at the Center for Astrobiology in Madrid.
The term dark microbiome, coined by scientists, refers to the genetic material of hitherto unknown microorganisms. It is similar to dark matter, a hypothetical form of matter in the universe that remains unidentified.
Their research was published in February in Nature Communications, under the title The dark microbiome and extremely low amount of organic matter in the Atacama Fossil Delta reveal the detection limits of life on Mars.
For scientists, the instruments currently deployed on Mars may lack the sensitivity needed to identify potential life traits.
The assessments were made in an ancient river bed at Piedra Roja, a desert setting that is geologically similar to the Martian Jezero crater, where the NASA’s Perseverance rover.
Piedra Roja is made up of a variety of sediments interspersed with sandstone and clay, typical of a fluvial bed, determining the presence of hematite, the iron oxide that gives Mars its characteristic red color.
Findings on Earth that may be key to research on Mars
Azúa-Bustos spoke with the SINC agency about what was discovered in the area.
“(It was located) a variety of microorganisms that are very difficult to classify, so we propose the term dark microbiome, which, similar to the dark matter that is estimated to make up a significant part of the universe, we know is there, but still resists being identified.”
In the area they also found a variety of biosignatures, substances that can indicate the presence of life in a place, at the detection limit of the instruments that can be found in a research laboratory.
“The remarkable thing”, Azúa-Bustos emphasizes in the SINC note, “was that by using a variety of instruments that are on, or are about to be sent to Mars, and depending on the biosignature that was sought, several of them could barely detect them, or they simply were not able to do so.
Mars is a determining objective in NASA’s Artemis Program, which not only seeks to establish a base on the Moon, but also to do so in the future on the red planet. Today, Martian exploration continues to progress slowly but surely, with the presence of the Perseverance rover and the Ingenuity helicopter at the site.
The researcher Azúa-Bustos points out that the findings at Piedra Roja “underline the importance of bringing samples from Mars to Earth, like the ones now collected by Perseverance.”