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Follow the water-Follow the salts. Learnings from the Atacama Desert about the search for life on Mars

Tuesday, February 24, 2009
F. Davila (NASA Ames Research Center)

The Atacama Desert ranks as the driest desert on Earth, and is considered a close analog to the extreme hyper-arid conditions on Mars. Photosynthetic bacteria in the hyper-arid core of the Atacama Desert are almost exclusively found within evaporitic deposits, which favor the condensation of water at relative humidity levels that otherwise hinder the occurrence of liquid water on the surface. I will argue that if life was ever present on Mars it likely followed survival strategies and adaptations similar to those of microorganisms in the Atacama Desert, and other arid environments on Earth, particularly the colonization of salts, when the surface of the planet became increasingly hyper-arid. Recently identified chloride deposits on the Martian surface therefore have a strong astrobiological potential, and ought to be targeted by future robotic missions on the surface.

Speaker's Curriculum Vitae: Alfonso F. Davila has been involved for the past few years in the study of microorganisms in extreme environments and in understanding water related geochemical processes on Mars. He is currently studying the survival strategies of endolithic cyanobacteria inhabiting halite rocks in the Atacama Desert, as well as the survivability of microorganisms under extreme conditions simulated in the laboratory (subfreezing temperatures, high radiation). In the past he has been involved in a wide range of research areas related to life sciences, ranging from microbiology to histology and physiology. Alfonso F. Davila is currently a researcher at the SETI Institute and at the Planetary and Space Science Division in the NASA Ames Research Center. He received his PhD in Geophysics by the University of Munich in 2005 in the study of biogenic magnetite in bacteria and higher organisms.

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