June 18 (UPI) -- New research suggests certain cyanobacteria could thrive on Mars. The microbes could even be used to provide future space colonies with oxygen.
"This might sound like science fiction, but space agencies and private companies around the world are actively trying to turn this aspiration into reality in the not-too-distant future," Elmars Krausz, chemistry professor at Australian National University, said in a news release. "Photosynthesis could theoretically be harnessed with these types of organisms to create air for humans to breathe on Mars."
Cyanobacteria are the only photosynthetic prokaryotes capable of producing oxygen. They're the most abundant ground of bacteria on the planet and have colonized Earth since as early as 2.5 billion years ago. Several cyanobacteria have adapted to low-light conditions.
"Low-light adapted organisms, such as the cyanobacteria we've been studying, can grow under rocks and potentially survive the harsh conditions on the red planet," Krausz said.
As part of the latest research -- published in the journal Science -- scientists analyzed the photosynthesizing abilities of Chroococcidiopsis thermalis, an algae species capable of absorbing and harvesting energy from redder, lower-energy light.
Chroococcidiopsis thermalis has previously been discovered living in deep sea hot springs and inside rocks in the Mojave desert. The latest research showed the cyanobacteria can more than just survive among extreme, low-light environs, in can thrive in them.
"This work redefines the minimum energy needed in light to drive photosynthesis," said Jennifer Morton, PhD student at the ANU Research School of Chemistry. "This type of photosynthesis may well be happening in your garden, under a rock."
The new research could also help scientists know what to look for when searching for alien life. Many of the potentially habitable planets and moons identified by astronomers are likely to be relatively hostile compared to Earth's generally temperate, water-rich environs.
The red chlorophylls that help cyanobacteria thrive in low-light conditions have a unique spectral signature.
"Searching for the signature fluorescence from these pigments could help identify extra-terrestrial life," Morton said.