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Arctic bacteria Found in Canada in Sub-Zero Temperatures, Offers Insight on Life on Mars

May 24, 2013 12:51 AM EDT
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Scientists say they've found bacteria growing in the Canadian arctic at below freezing temperatures, making it the coldest environment bacteria have ever been found to grow in.

A Canadian-led team of researchers made the discovery in Ellesmere Island, Canada. The bacteria, Planococcus halocryophilus OR, was found in permafrost and offers clues about the types of organisms that might exist in similar extreme environments elsewhere in our solar system, such as Mars.  The organism thrives at 5 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 15 degrees Celsius), says a study published Wednesday in the ISME Journal. 

The McGill University researchers collected and later cultured about 200 microbes, putting the organisms in a simulation of their native environment to find the one best-suited for living in extreme conditions. A strain of Planococcus halocryophilus, made its home in tiny veins of salty water in the Arctic permafrost.  The permafrost has been frozen for 5,000 to 6,000 years and the environment has an average temperature of about -16 C.

"You look at permafrost, you think of this frozen dead world, but it's not," said Lyle Whyte, a McGill University microbiologist who co-led the study with post-doctoral researcher Nadia Mykytczuk, according to CBC news.

"We believe that this bacterium lives in very thin veins of very salty water found within the frozen permafrost on Ellesmere Island," Whyte said. "The salt in the permafrost brine veins keeps the water from freezing at the ambient permafrost temperature, creating a habitable but very harsh environment.

"It's not the easiest place to survive but this organism is capable of remaining active (i.e. breathing) to at least -25 degree C (minus 13 degrees F) in permafrost."

The bacterium adapts to the extremely cold, salty conditions in which it is found thanks to significant modifications in its cell structure and function, the researchers said.

"I'm kind of proud of this bug," Whyte said. "It comes from the Canadian High Arctic and is our cold temperature champion, but what we can learn from this microbe may tell us a lot about how similar microbial life may exist elsewhere in the solar system."

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