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‘Martian’ environment in Dorset may point to life on Mars billions of years ago

Bugs in acidic streams at St Oswald’s Bay raise the chances of finding evidence of past life on the Red Planet.

Costly space missions may be one way of looking for evidence of life on Mars, but there is an easier option – go to Dorset.

Specifically, go to St Oswald’s Bay. There scientists have discovered an environment that mimics what it might have been like on the Red Planet billions of years ago.

Highly acidic sulphur streams in the St Oswald’s Bay area harbour bacteria that thrive in extreme conditions.

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New Mars image

And if they can live there, they may once have lived on Mars.

When the bugs die they leave a biological footprint in the form of fatty acids, the building blocks of cells, preserved in rock.

By applying their findings to Mars, the scientists concluded that there could be the equivalent of nearly 12,000 Olympic sized pools of organic matter on the planet representing traces of past life.

Researcher Jonathan Tan, from Imperial College London, said: “St Oswald’s Bay is a present-day microcosm of middle-aged Mars.

“As the acid streams dry up, like during Mars’ ‘drying period’, they leave geothite minerals behind which preserve fatty acids that act as biological signatures.”

The iron-rich mineral goethite turns to hematite which is very common on Mars and gives the planet its red colour.

Mars harboured water billions of years ago, meaning some form of life might have thrived there Professor Mark Sephton, Imperial College London

Examining rock deposits around St Oswald’s Bay, the scientists found goethite hosting many microbes as well as traces of their fossilised organic remains.

Assuming their concentration matches that on Earth, there might be the equivalent of nearly 12,000 Olympic-size pools of fatty acids preserved in Martian rock, they calculated.

Professor Mark Sephton, head of Imperial’s Department of Earth Science & Engineering, said: “Mars harboured water billions of years ago, meaning some form of life might have thrived there.

“If life existed before the water dried up, it would probably have left remains that are preserved to this day in Martian rock.”

The research appears in the journal Scientific Reports.

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