Scientists Say This Bacteria Could Be the Secret to Humans Terraforming Alien Planets
Billions of years ago, Earth saw a miraculous increase in the amount of oxygen floating around the planet, which would pave the way for more complex life over the next hundred million years. It wasn't some geological process that released all this oxygen, though—it was cyanobacteria (also known as blue-green algae), which had evolved to use a type of photosynthesis that could convert sunlight into energy and created oxygen as a waste product.
"The Great Oxidation Event" was one of the turning points in Earth's history, but cyanobacteria may be able to do it on other planets—even ones with less sunlight, a new study claims.
This opens the possibility of triggering the same explosion of oxygen on other planets, especially ones humans are looking to settle.
The key is Chroococcidiopsis thermalis, a type of cyanobacteria that can survive in extreme conditions and absorb redder, lower-energy light.
Previously, scientists thought cyanobacteria couldn't survive below a certain energy threshold of sunlight, but Chroococcidiopsis thermalis has proven that it can not only photosynthesize low-energy light to live, it can thrive on it.
In the past, it's been found living in extremely dark and hostile environments, such as deep-sea hot springs or (in the case of at least one related strain) within rocks in the desert.
"This work redefines the minimum energy needed in light to drive photosynthesis," said scientist Jennifer Norton from The Australian National University, one of the co-authors of the new study.
"This type of photosynthesis may well be happening in your garden, under a rock."
If imported to Mars, Chroococcidiopsis thermalis could theoretically change the face of the Red Planet, or potentially provide the basis for a bioreactor that creates oxygen for human environments.
According to Elmars Krausz, another co-author of the study:
"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. Photosynthesis could theoretically be harnessed with these types of organisms to create air for humans to breathe on Mars."
Aside from making Mars a little less hostile for humans, studying the properties of this cyanobacteria could also help astrobiologists learn what to look for when searching for extraterrestrial life: Considering that not all alien planets are as cushy as Earth, alien life may turn out to be hardy extremophiles like Chroococcidiopsis thermalis, rather than, say, Ewoks.