New signs of life found at the Poles

09/21/04

Large colonies of micro-organisms living under rocks have been discovered in the most hostile and extreme regions of the Arctic and Antarctic giving new insights on survival of life on other planets.

Reporting in this week's Nature, scientists from British Antarctic Survey (BAS) and Scripps Institution of Oceanography reveal their surprise findings that rock-dwelling micro-organisms can photosynthesise and store carbon just as much as the plants, lichens and mosses that live above ground.

BAS microbiologist Dr Charles Cockell says, "Although it's usual to find micro-organisms thriving under quartz and translucent rocks in hot deserts because enough light gets through, we wouldn't have expected this type of colonization in the polar regions where most of the rocks are opaque. Also, the harsh UV- radiation and violent winds make for a hostile environment. We found that in fact the opaque rocks protect the micro-organisms and, the movement of rocks during the annual freeze-thaw allows cracks to form and light to penetrate beneath the surface.

"This shows us that places we may think of as extreme for example other planets like Mars could nurture surprising habitats for life. The Poles are not the barren wilderness, devoid of life as we previously thought".

Source: Eurekalert & others

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