Mars on Earth: Scientists look to the Danakil Depression for clues to alien life

Story highlights

  • The Danakil Depression is one of the world's harshest environments
  • New research carried out there could help us understand life on Mars

(CNN)At the juncture of three tectonic plates in northeastern Ethiopia is an other-worldly and sunken plain. The heat quivers here. Rock formations are colored by minerals in oozing volcanic psychedelia. The Danakil Depression is one of the hottest and most hostile places on earth.

Not much can survive in Danakil. The average year-round temperature is 34.4 degrees Celsius and the area gets about 100 millimetres of rain per annum.
At 100 meters below sea level, it's one of the lowest places on earth. It was once the seabed of the Red Sea. Thousands of years later it is a dry and cracked ground.
    An Afar man and his donkeys cross the hot plains of the Danakil Depression.
    Astonishingly, humans live here. For the Afar people it's home. Accompanied with long lines of donkeys, the Afar people mine rich salt from the ground to sell at local markets. It's remarkable they can work in such heat, over 50 degrees Celsius in the summer.

    Untapped scientific potential

    Despite the region's obvious potential for rich scientific research, until last year it had not been significantly studied. Felipe Gómez Gómez of the Centro de Astrobiologia, Italy, led the first expedition last spring.
    Gómez is part of team Curiosity at NASA which is investigating the potential for life on Mars. Clearly, getting to Mars to explore planetary-life has its difficulties -- although his team did successfully land a rover on the Red Planet on August 5, 2012. The next best option are environments on earth, like Danakil, that replicate similarly extreme conditions.
    His team, researchers from the University of Bologna and the International Research School of Planetary Science, traveled to Danakil to study extremophiles, resilient forms of microbes that can live in hostile environments. These tough bacteria point to the type of organisms that could exist on planets like Mars.
    "For the past 20 years I have been working in the field studying the limits of life. We identified the Danakil Depression as a very extreme environment where the conditions in which life could exist would be amazing," Gómez explains.

    What scientists learned

    The expedition provided fruitful scientific findings.
    The scientists identified three different eco-systems and using an advanced biological method, which involves scanning samples for genetic material, have detected several microorganisms within these.
    The team took measurements of pH levels, temperature, humidity and oxygen concentrations from the copper-rich pools of water, and yellow sulfate and red iron oxide rock formations, and collected extensive samples of extremophiles and are studying their DNA to understand how they can live in these conditions.
    "We learned that the life that exists does so within a thermo-dynamical process. This means that if liquid water exists it doesn't matter how extreme the conditions are - life can appear," Gómez says.
    The scientists believe that the microorganisms are a group of prokaryotes -- single-celled organisms without nuclei inside their cells, whose DNA floats in their liquid center -- which are able to survive in extreme conditions.
    Gómez and his team are also looking for entirely new forms of bacteria. The research team, Gómez reveals, should be able to conclude these findings in the next couple of months.

    The limits of life

    If the Danakil Depression is a hostile environment, Mars is a whole other level of extremeness. Gómez admits the probability of life on the surface of Mars is very unlikely because of radiation levels and low water activity.
    The research does, however, test and attempt to defy the parameters of what we currently know about the limits of life. Studying the extremophiles in the Danakil Depression teaches astrobiologists valuable lessons in how to recognize life in hostile areas. If life existed on Mars, would scientists be able to identify it?

    A hostile environment

    Like space exploration, traveling to the Danakil Depression is a challenging journey. It is incredibly remote. It takes a whole day of arduous SUV driving to reach the Afar region.
    It's also an active volcanic area, periodically cloaked with clouds of chloride. "If you stay outside for too long you start to burn. At times you have to put a mask on and avoid breathing in the toxic air," Gómez says.
    The region is an active volcanic area.
    The Danakil Depression is an exceptional and harsh place. But it offers scientists a window into another world, and may teach us valuable lessons about the possibility, and potential, of life beyond our own.