Mike the Mad Biologist

Life on Mars?

It probably doesn’t look like Marvin. (from here)

The data haven’t been released yet, but that’s what CNN is reporting:

The soil on Mars may contain microbial life, according to a new interpretation of data first collected more than 30 years ago.

The search for life on Mars appeared to hit a dead end in 1976 when Viking landers touched down on the red planet and failed to detect biological activity.

But Joop Houtkooper of the University of Giessen, Germany, said on Friday the spacecraft may in fact have found signs of a weird life form based on hydrogen peroxide on the subfreezing, arid Martian surface.

His analysis of one of the experiments carried out by the Viking spacecraft suggests that 0.1 percent of the Martian soil could be of biological origin.

That is roughly comparable to biomass levels found in some Antarctic permafrost, home to a range of hardy bacteria and lichen.

“It is interesting because one part per thousand is not a small amount,” Houtkooper said in a telephone interview.

“We will have to find confirmatory evidence and see what kind of microbes these are and whether they are related to terrestrial microbes. It is a possibility that life has been transported from Earth to Mars or vice versa a long time ago.”

…. Houtkooper is presenting his research to the European Planetary Science Congress in Potsdam, Germany.

While most scientists think our next-door neighbor in the solar system is lifeless, the discovery of microbes on Earth that can exist in environments previously thought too hostile has fueled debate over extraterrestrial life.

Houtkooper believes Mars could be home to just such “extremophiles” — in this case, microbes whose cells are filled with a mixture of hydrogen peroxide and water, providing them with natural anti-freeze.

They would be quite capable of surviving a harsh Martian climate where temperatures rarely rise above freezing and can fall to minus 150 degrees Celsius.

Houtkooper believes their presence would account for unexplained rises in oxygen and carbon dioxide when NASA’s Viking landers incubated Martian soil. He bases his calculation of the biomass of Martian soil on the assumption that these gases were produced during the breakdown of organic material.

Forget the metazoans. Microbes are the coolest (pun intended).


  1. #1 Brian
    August 23, 2007

    Excellent news! I hope the data is confirmed. The theological implications of life on other planets could do a lot to shake up the creationists.

  2. #2 Coin
    August 23, 2007

    We seem to get one of these “might”s every ten years or so, so I dunno how seriously I can take this. Still, I’ll be curious to see what the Phoenix Mars Lander finds. Assuming we still have a space program by this time next year.

  3. #3 Salad Is Slaughter
    August 23, 2007

    This article has some dissenting views: http://www.space.com/news/070823_mars_life.html

  4. #4 Beren
    August 23, 2007

    I really don’t think creationists are going to have a hard time getting over extraterrestrial life. It’s not more revolutionary than some other discoveries they’ve absorbed (: Give them a year, and they’ll find a way to consider it evidence in support of their position.

    Actually, C.S. Lewis already has 😛

  5. #5 cephyn
    August 23, 2007

    I’m getting tired of this story. I hope they can get a lander up there and get some more definitive results soon.

    Jan 2007


    and of coure, 1997, a culmination of what experiment designer Gil Levin has been saying for years

  6. #6 CRM-114
    August 23, 2007

    Cool your jets on the religious angle. If confirmed, it’ll take the iddy-oughts less than a week to cook up some ‘proof’ that Martian life is intelligently designed. The clock starts when there are quotes for them to mine.

  7. #7 bigTom
    August 23, 2007

    Aside from the low probability I give to this thing being true, I don’t think it woulkd phase the creationists. Now intelligent aliens that were obviously more advanced, and had no religion, -or a religion quite different from the Abrahamic ones, maybe -but hoping for flying saucers is hardly realistic either!

  8. #8 Michael Schmidt
    August 23, 2007

    Yeah, yeah, yeah. You get oxygen and carbon dioxide from the soil. Other explanations for these gases have been previously presented. No doubt this guy has some problem with the previous explanations, and some nifty hypothesis of how life could otherwise account for the observations. Wake me up when you actually have a microbe.

  9. #9 sailor
    August 23, 2007

    It is always possible of course. But life is a pretty active thing, and had it been around for a while my guess is it would have spread enough to start changing the atmopshere. But you never know. It would be interesting.

  10. #10 God
    August 24, 2007

    Dear Sir.

    Many thanks for bringing this to my attention. Having just released an official statement on dinosaurs it would appear that I must now approach the subject of life on other planets. It will be a busy weeked.

    Again, many thanks.

  11. #11 PhysioProf
    August 24, 2007

    “The soil on Mars may contain microbial life, according to a new interpretation of data first collected more than 30 years ago.”

    So this guy is the “Einstein” of life on Mars, with the key insight that no one else who has had access to the same data for 30 years managed to arrive at? It’s possible, but exceedingly unlikely. What is vastly more likely is that he has come up with an analysis that is consistent with the data and consistent with there being some novel form of life on Mars, but does not rule out a non-living scenario.

  12. #12 PhysioProf
    August 25, 2007


    Yup, just as I suspected. And his theory even has built into it a handy explanation for why no actualy organisms were ever found in the soil.

    (h/t Coturnix)

  13. #13 erotic shop
    December 24, 2010

    But life is a pretty active thing, and had it been around for a while my guess is it would have spread enough to start changing the atmopshere. But you never know. It would be interesting.

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