(ORDO NEWS) — Conditions on the celestial bodies closest to us today are far from suitable for humans, but some terrestrial organisms survive in them for millions of years.
The Atacama Desert is one of the driest and most inhospitable places on Earth, but the cyanobacterium Chroococcidiopsis, found in local gypsum samples, is able to extract the water and minerals it needs right from the surrounding rocks.
To detect these tiny lumps of life, researchers from Johns Hopkins University (USA) had to track not even the cells themselves, but traces of their stay in the plaster.
Scientists already knew that cyanobacterial cells in the process of life gradually extract bound water from gypsum, turning it into anhydrous calcium sulfate.
However, the mechanism by which microorganisms provide themselves with another essential substance, iron, has so far remained unclear.
Now, finally, researchers have been able to track this process by populating desert cyanobacteria on special substrates with crushed magnetite , an iron oxide common on Earth.
After studying samples of magnetite under an electron microscope some time later, the authors of the new work noticed that the mineral particles, covered with a bacterial film, noticeably decreased in size.
At the same time, traces of hematite , another iron-bearing mineral that can be called “rusty magnetite,” were found on the substrates.
It turned out that bacteria dissolve magnetite, after which they secrete siderophores – special molecules that bind iron and store it for further use by the microorganism.
After observing the inconspicuous life of cyanobacteria in their desert home, scientists thought about new methods of mining, in which the processing of ore would require not the use of complex installations, high temperatures and solid energy costs, but the settlement of crushed rock with suitable microorganisms and incubation at room temperature.
Since the conditions of the Atacama Desert are among the most severe on the planet, it is possible that microbes-miners will be able to survive outside the Earth, becoming the first “colonists” of the Moon and Mars.
Requiring no free water, capable of extracting minerals from rocks and releasing oxygen through photosynthesis, they could serve to terraform other bodies in the solar system and prepare them for the arrival of the first humans.
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