The candy-pink Laguna de Peña Hueca derives its colour from the red cells of the salt-loving algae Dunaliella salina EP-1.
Credit: Europlanet/F Gómez/R Thombre

A candy-pink lagoon here on Earth has implications for the search for life on Mars.

A microorganism has been discovered that provides new evidence for how life could survive on a “high-salt” diet on Mars and perhaps beneath Europa’s icy façade.

Dunaliella salina EP-1 is one of the most salt-tolerant extremophiles that has been found. The microorganism has implications for how algae might be used to terraform Mars.

Findings from a study of microorganisms found in Laguna de Peña Hueca, part of the Lake Tirez system in La Mancha, Spain, is being presented this week at the European Planetary Science Congress 2018 in Berlin.

Credit: Europlanet/F Gómez/R Thombre

Lagoon water

Presenting their research: Rebecca Thombre of the Department of Biotechnology, at the Modern College of Arts, Science and Commerce in Shivajinagar, Pune, India, and Felipe Gómez of the Centro de Astrobiología, Madrid, Spain.

The research team collected samples of lagoon water and studied the physical characteristics and genetic sequence of the isolated microorganisms. They found that the lagoon’s pink color derives from the red cells of a sub-genus of the salt-loving algae Dunaliella.

The lagoon has very high concentrations of salt and sulphur and is a good analogue for chloride deposits found in the southern highlands of Mars and briny water beneath Europa’s icy crust.

This extremophilic algal strain from Laguna de Peña Hueca has been named Dunaliella salina EP-1 after the Europlanet 2020 Research Infrastructure.
Credit: Europlanet/F Gomez/R Thombre

Industrial applications

The cells of Dunaliella algae are used in many countries for the industrial production of carotenoids, ß-carotene, glycerol, bioactives, biofuel and antioxidants, so the strain EP-1 may have applications for a range of biotechnologies.

“Considering the commercial and economic significance of this organism, future studies are warranted to gain a complete picture of its physiology, ecology and biotechnological potential,” Thombre said in a press statement.

The resilience of extremophiles to the conditions of Mars analogues on Earth demonstrate their potential to thrive in martian soils, Gómez added. “This has implications for planetary protection, as well as how algae might be used to terraform Mars.”

The abstract for the meeting — Extremophiles from Tirez and Peña Hueca: Implications for exploring habitability of Mars and Europa — is here:

https://meetingorganizer.copernicus.org/EPSC2018/EPSC2018-1180.pdf

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