Mars mystery breakthrough: 'Dark matter’ bacteria in ancient lava caves offer clues

In a new study, researchers have uncovered ancient geothermal caves, lava tubes, and volcanic vents, that are bustling with thousands of previously undiscovered microorganisms. According to the authors, these lava caves and geothermal vents are similar to what may have once existed on Mars. 

This means that the bacteria discovered in Hawaii could offer some clues as to how life can survive in extreme conditions like that of Mars.

This discovery also proves scientists still have much to learn about as-of-yet unknown bacteria here on Earth.

These ancient lava caves represent how life might have existed on Mars and early Earth in the past, as this study in Frontiers in Microbiology explores the diversity and interactions within these microbial ecosystems.

In the study, the researchers were surprised to discover that a group of bacteria known as Chloroflexi are often ‘hub’ species, which means that they are connected with many other species and usually play key ecological roles in the community.

While very little is known about these mysterious species, further studies will discover more undiscovered species, along with an understanding of what roles these species play in such extreme environments.

First author Dr Rebecca D Prescott of NASA Johnson Space Center and University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa said: “This study points to the possibility that more ancient lineages of bacteria, like the phylum Chloroflexi, may have important ecological ‘jobs,’ or roles.

“The Chloroflexi are an extremely diverse group of bacteria, with lots of different roles found in lots of different environments, but they are not well studied and so we don’t know what they do in these communities.

“Some scientists call such groups ‘microbial dark matter’ – the unseen or un-studied microorganisms in nature.”

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“Some scientists call such groups ‘microbial dark matter’ – the unseen or un-studied microorganisms in nature.”

To better understand how these microbes develop over time, the researchers gathered 70 samples from varied sites including active geothermal vents (fumaroles), as well as ‘younger’ and ‘older’ lava tubes and caves, which were under 400 years old and between 500 to 800 years old, respectively.

By sequencing the ribosomal RNA in the samples, they could measure the diversity and abundance of the bacterial classes in each sample.

The networks formed by co-occurring bacteria also offered clues about how these microbes may interact with each other.

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The scientists had previously expected that the geothermal sites, which harshest observed conditions would have a lower diversity of species than the far more habitable lava tubes.

While this turned out to be true, they were stunned that find that the interactions within these communities were more complex than in locations with higher diversity.

Dr Prescott said: “This leads to the question, do extreme environments help create more interactive microbial communities, with microorganisms more dependent on each other?

“And if so, what is it about extreme environments that helps to create this?”

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