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Could Earth’s Toughest Life-Forms Survive on Mars?

Stranded on Mars and assumed dead, astronaut Mark Watney tells himself, “I’ve got to make water and grow food on a planet where nothing grows.” While The Martian is a work of fiction, it accurately depicts how difficult it is for life to survive on the red planet. But many real-world astrobiologists are convinced that life—or remnants of it—will eventually be discovered on Mars.

Exposing Antarctic Fungi to Mars’s Conditions

In their search for life on Mars, a team of 10 astrobiologists subjected dehydrated cryptoendolithic fungi to simulated Martian conditions aboard the International Space Station.1 The two species of fungi collected (Cryomyces antarcticus and Cryomyces minteri) thrive on rock surfaces in Antarctica. By exposing the fungi to Martian conditions, the scientists aim to determine if some of Earth’s hardiest species can survive on present-day Mars.

After 18 months under the simulated Martian environment, less than 10 percent of the Antarctic fungal samples proliferated and formed colonies. However, more than 60 percent of the cells and rock communities remained intact. The fungal communities did suffer significant DNA damage during the exposure to Martian conditions; nevertheless, the team was impressed by how much DNA stability was retained inside the fungal cells.

What Do the Results Mean?

The team’s research demonstrates the hardiness of some of Earth’s extremophiles (organisms able to survive under extreme environmental conditions, thanks to complex biochemical repair machinery embedded in the cells). The research also shows that the Antarctic fungi might survive a meteorite-assisted trip to Mars and live, at least for a short duration, on the surface of Mars.

If a large enough meteorite were to strike Antarctica, the impact could conceivably eject fungi-embedded Antarctic rocks into interplanetary space where they could be deposited on the Martian surface. Once on the Martian surface, a tiny percentage of the fungi embedded in the rocks could possibly survive in a viable state for a short period of time.

Will We Ever Find Terrestrial Life on Mars?

But is life present on Mars now? Given that, over life’s history on Earth, about 200 kilograms of Earth’s soil and rocks have been deposited (by meteoritic transfer) onto every 100 square kilometers of the Martian surface,2 it is inevitable that the remains of terrestrial life will one day be discovered on Mars. The research results achieved by the 10 astrobiologists demonstrates that a small but not totally remote possibility exists that terrestrial life may actually be alive on Mars.

Christians need not be scared should life be found on Mars. As the psalmist declares, God has created life to fill every corner and crevice of our planet: “How many are your works, Lord! In wisdom you made them all; the earth is full of your creatures.”3 Isaiah 45:18 concurs, “He who fashioned and made the earth, he founded it; he did not create it to be empty, but formed it to be inhabited.” It is because Earth is so full of God’s creatures that Mars might not be totally empty.

  1. Silvano Onofri et al., “Survival of Antarctic Cryptoendolithic Fungi in Simulated Martian Conditions on Board the International Space Station,” Astrobiology 15 (December 2015): 1052–59, doi:10.1089/ast.2015.1324.
  2. John C. Armstrong, Llyd E. Wells, and Guillermo Gonzalez, “Rummaging through Earth’s Attic for Remains of Ancient Life,” Icarus 160 (November 2002): 183–96, doi:10.1006/icar.2002.6957. Available as a PDF:
  3. Psalm 104:24 (NIV).