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Researchers Study Organism's Survival Secrets For Possible Life On Mars

BALTIMORE (WJZ) -- NASA's announcement this week that there was once water capable of supporting life on Mars was big news. But smaller scale research is underway in Baltimore that could point the way to life on Mars today.

Alex DeMetrick reports scientists are focusing on some of the toughest life on Earth.

Sometimes you have to think really small when thinking about life on Mars. Researchers at the University of Maryland School of Medicine are studying a tiny microbe.

"The organism that we're studying here is called halorubrum lacusprofundi. You find it in deep lake Antarctica," said Dr. Shil DasSarma, UM School of Medicine.

It's an environment that is six times saltier than the ocean and as cold as 40 degrees below zero. And as it turns out, that might just describe some places on Mars, which has brought NASA funding -- especially after researchers made the discovery of dark streaks, indicating periodic flows of brine.

"That type of discovery is very exciting to us because it suggests there might be very large deposits of underground brine, and that's just the type of brine haolarchea would flourish in," DasSarma said.

To keep the microbe happy, it's kept in cold storage freezers--where scientists are able to reproduce it in huge numbers for study--although it doesn't take up much space. One beaker contains about ten trillion in a micro environment.

And on Mars, it's all about those specialized environments.

"It's certainly possible that even under the harshest environments there could be life on Mars," said Dr. Paul Mahaffy, NASA scientist.

"What we want to do is define the limits of life on Earth, by studying extremophiles. And by that we will have a better insight into what could potentially be found on Mars," said DasSarma.

Besides studying the hardy microbe for clues to potential life on Mars, it is also showing promise for use in medicine.

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