Microbes appear to be dormant in permafrost in a region of Antarctica, which could deal a blow for the search for life in similar regions on Mars.
A group of researchers found negative tests for microbial activity at temperatures below freezing in a region called University Valley, in Antarctica's McMurdo Dry Valleys. However, in spots just a little above freezing (5 Celsius, or 41 Fahrenheit), the same team found five bacteria and one yeast.
"Detecting activity at this temperature indicates that at least some of the biomass in University Valley soils is viable, and these cells are likely currently dormant and surviving until more favorable conditions come along," said Jackie Goordial, the principal investigator of the research.
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She acknowledged, however, that if only a few cells were active in the permafrost, they could have eluded the detection limits of her instruments. "We also assayed for activity using the same tests we would normally use for other permafrost environments, and which are normally successful," added Goordial, a postdoctoral fellow in environmental microbiology at McGill University in Montreal, Canada.