Life Discovered in Earth's Coldest Environment Yet

Bacteria continue to turn up in harsh environments.


Canadian scientists have discovered microbial life in the north Arctic that can survive temperatures as low as minus 13 degrees F, which is similar to temperatures found on the surface of Mars.

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The bacteria, known as Planococcus halocryophilus, was one of more than 200 species of bacteria found living in the permafrost of Ellesmere Island, located northeast of Greenland, where it lives in extremely salty water located within the permafrost. The water is kept in liquid form in temperatures below freezing because of its salt content.

Normal temperatures in the permafrost are about 5 degrees F, but in lab tests, Planococcus halocryophilus was able to continue thriving at temperatures well below zero.

It is the coldest environment where bacterial life has ever been discovered.

Lyle Whyte, a researcher at McGill University and lead author of the study describing the bacteria, says the fact that life can thrive at such cold temperatures raises hope for the possibility of life on Mars or one of Saturn's moons, where ice exists.

Prof. Whyte of McGill University. (McGill University)

"On Mars, we know the surface gets into this temperature range," he says. "What we've done here is proven that a microorganism could potentially exist in such a habitat, that an organism would be capable of growing in cold temperatures and can also be highly adapted to living in very salty environments."

Recent robotic trips to Mars, such as NASA's Curiosity rover, are looking for potential signs of life on the surface of the planet, but Whyte says future missions should include a drill capable of boring several meters into Mars's permafrost to look for life.

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"Lots of scientists think that life on Mars is long gone or deep in the subsurface, so a lot of missions are looking for signs of dead microbes," he says. "The kind of work we're doing shows there could be existing microbial communities living close to the surface of Mars."

Whyte's discovery is the latest to confirm that life can live in seemingly impossible environments. Within the last year, microbes have been found living in storm clouds and in the salt water of Antarctica's Lake Vida, which is covered by more than 30 feet of ice and reaches temperatures as low as 8.6 degrees F. Those discoveries, and Whyte's, show the extremely adaptable nature of bacterial life; Whyte even theorizes that there could be life on Mars that came from Earth.

"There is probably something that survived the trip from Earth on one of our rovers," he says. "They may be stuck on the rover and are probably not doing much, but I think they're probably alive."

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