Despite our search for extraterrestrial life for countless years, the existence of aliens is yet to be proved. While scientists continue to be on the lookout for potential life outside our planet, a team of researchers has discovered some new bacteria — with the strange ability to live off chemicals in the air — which can change the way we think about life living on other planets.
The researchers led by the University of New South Wales in Australia found that certain microbes in Antarctica have a previously unknown ability to live on a diet of hydrogen, carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide from the air to stay alive in the extreme conditions. The latest discovery, published in the journal Nature on Wednesday, suggests that extraterrestrial microbes could also scavenge atmospheric gases for their survival.
Despite being one of the most extreme environments on Earth, Antarctica is home to a surprisingly rich diversity of microbial communities. Scientists have been baffled by their survival in the region even during the winter darkness when there is little capacity to produce energy from the sun via photosynthesis.
“We found that the Antarctic microbes have evolved mechanisms to live on air instead, and they can get most of the energy and carbon they need by scavenging trace atmospheric gases, including hydrogen and carbon monoxide,” Belinda Ferrari, a UNSW scientist and the senior author of the study, said in a statement.
As part of the study, the researchers collected soil samples from two coastal ice-free sites in different regions of eastern Antarctica. They later sequenced the DNA of 23 microbes that lived there and identified two previously unknown groups called WPS-2 and AD3.
Living in the soil with other species, these bacteria were found to have a high affinity for hydrogen and carbon monoxide, allowing them to harvest these gases from the air at high-enough rates to sustain life.
According to scientists, more research is needed to see how widespread the use of atmospheric gases as an alternative energy source in Antarctica or elsewhere on the Earth is.
“This new understanding about how life can still exist in physically extreme and nutrient-starved environments like Antarctica opens up the possibility of atmospheric gases supporting life on other planets,” Ferrari added.
Do similar microbes that need no food but air to survive life on other planets? That’s the question scientists will now probably focus on.