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Most of the ongoing search for alien life focuses on Mars, but of equal importance are icy moons like Enceladus and Europa which orbit Saturn and Jupiter and are similar to Antartica.
“Extremophile” bacteria can survive in the harshest conditions on Earth and scientists hope they can survive off the planet.
Australian microbiologist Belinda Ferrari said: “The big question has been how the microbes can survive when there is little water, the soils are very low in organic carbon and there is very little capacity to produce energy from the sun via photosynthesis during the winter darkness.
“We found that the Antarctic microbes have evolved mechanisms to live on air instead.”
In 2014, a team of researchers from institutions across Australia and New Zealand collected soil samples from ice-free sites along the East Antarctic coast.
The idea was to understand how microscopic life managed to get everything it needed to survive in inhospitable climates.
They reconstructed the genomes of nearly two dozen microbes and discovered two kinds of undiscovered bacteria called WPS-2 and AD3.
WPS-2 and AD3 extract energy and carbon from hydrogen, carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide in the air.
Ms Belinda said: “They were in extremely high abundance which was never observed before.
“So that’s why we then decided to carry out genomics to gain insights into what these bacteria do.”
Antarctica should not be able to support life as it has freezing temperatures, high UV radiation exposure and limited carbon, nitrogen and water.
But, the microbes have key genes that give them a “high affinity” for hydrogen and carbon monoxide.
This means they are able to suck whatever trace gases they need from the air quickly and easily enough to sustain themselves.
NASA believes celestial bodies with liquid water oceans beneath the icy surface of Jupiter and Saturn’s moons could sustain microbial life.
Life on Earth came from hot primordial soup, but life could still develop on frozen moons.
Warmth underneath the icy exterior might still sustain life.
The discovery opens up the possibility that life forms only need an atmospheric gas to survive.
The results were recently published in the scientific journal Nature.