Science & Technology
Ice spires hint at potential for life on Pluto
July 9, 2019 | 2 comments
The highest parts of the Andes are notoriously inaccessible. Image Credit: NASA
The existence of algae high up in the Andes Mountains hints at the possibility of life on distant, icy worlds.
Wherever there is liquid water, there is life - that is, according to a new study published by student researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder who have identified a habitat for life in one of the Earth's most inhospitable and inaccessible environments.
Ice spires - which are dagger-shaped ice structures found high up in the Andes Mountains - are home to microbial communities that appear to be thriving despite freezing temperatures, low humidity, extreme winds and deadly ultraviolet radiation exposure due to the high altitude.
"This is a very remote area that's difficult to access," said Prof Steve Schmidt. "The entire back of one of our pickup trucks had to be filled with barrels of drinking water. It's no trivial thing to go out there, and that's one of the reasons these formations haven't been studied much."
The algae, which appear as patches of red coloration, were found 16,000ft above sea level.
"Snow algae have been commonly found throughout the cryosphere on both ice and snow patches, but our finding demonstrated their presence for the first time at the extreme elevation of a hyper-arid site," said study lead author Lara Vimercati.
The discovery emphasizes just how resilient life can be and suggests that microbes could also potentially survive in similar situations on other worlds such as Pluto.
"Our study shows how no matter how challenging the environmental conditions, life finds a way when there is availability of liquid water," said Vimercati.
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