Scientists have spent years looking for life in the high elevation McMurdo Dry Valleys of Antarctica, thought to be the area that most closely resembles the permafrost found in the northern polar region of Mars at the Phoenix landing site. However, scientists have failed to find any signs of active microbial life, which implies that no life will be detected on Mars.
Jackie Goordial, a post-doctoral fellow in the Department of Natural Resource Sciences at McGill University, needed over 1,000 Petri dishes to give in to the fact that there was no life on one of the coldest, oldest and driest places in the world. Apparently, the extreme conditions in this area have been ongoing for 150,000 years.
Goordial’s supervisor, Lyle Whyte, said that it was unbelievable to reach a cold and arid threshold where even microbial life cannot exist but consoled Goordial that not finding life is just as important. Nevertheless, the research team was initially confident that they would be able to detect a microbial ecosystem just like in the Arctic and Antarctic permafrost and other lower elevation sites in Antarctica.
Using the IceBite auger, a drill designed for Martian permafrost, the team collected samples from two permafrost boreholes. Initially, the test was conducted on the spot and the results did not show any evidence of carbon dioxide or methane in the first sample, which could have been used by living things. Next, another sample was sent back at the lab for DNA testing, stimulating microbial growth and looking for matches with particular genes found in microbes and fungi.
However, the scientists did not find any signs of active life within these samples. Considering the constant dryness, lack of water even in summer and subfreezing temperatures, it is not probable that microbes can grow in this area.
“If conditions are too cold and dry to support active microbial life on an analogous climate on Earth, then the colder dryer conditions in the near surface permafrost on Mars are unlikely to contain life,” Whyte added in a press release. “Additionally, if we cannot detect activity on Earth, in an environment which is teeming with microorganisms, it will be extremely unlikely and difficult to detect such activity on Mars.”