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Antarctic Fungi Survive for a Year in Mars-Like Conditions on Space Station

Fungi and lichens like those living in the most extreme environments on Earth may be able to survive on Mars, according to an experiment conducted on the International Space Station. The discovery is encouraging to scientists who hope to find traces of recent — or even current — life on the Red Planet.

The EXPOSE-E platform where the organisms were subjected to various conditions, and one form of fungi as viewed by an electron microscope. S. Onofri et al.

Researchers from the University of Tuscany harvested samples of the ultra-hardy fungi living in the frozen, dry, wind-blasted terrain of the McMurdo Dry Valleys in Antarctica, as well as similarly durable lichens from other harsh environments.

The samples were sent to the ISS and, on a sealed platform mounted outside the station, exposed to a variety of conditions, one of which was designed to imitate the thin atmosphere and heavy radiation dose of the surface of Mars.

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Amazingly, the lichens retained 60 percent of their cells after a year and a half of this maltreatment, the researcher reveal in a paper published in the journal Astrobiology. If these Terran organisms could do it, why not native Martian species?

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"The results help to assess the survival ability and long-term stability of microorganisms and bioindicators on the surface of Mars," said co-researcher Rosa de la Torre Noetzel from Spain's National Institute of Aerospace Technology, "information which becomes fundamental and relevant for future experiments centered around the search for life on the Red Planet."