While the possibility of life on Mars has captivated the minds of Earth, it turns out that Saturn’s moon, Enceladus, might also boast its own lifeforms. A new study, published in the journal, Nature, suggests that the icy moon may have ideal conditions for single-celled microorganisms known as archaeans, typically found in some of the most extreme environments on Earth.
According to the researchers, a methanogenic archaean called Methanonthermococcus okinawensis was able to thrive in a simulated environment that mimicked conditions to those that are believed to exist on Enceladus.
On our planet, this type of archaean is found at very hot temperatures near deep-sea hydrothermal vents. The microorganisms can convert carbon dioxide and hydrogen gas into methane.
Traces of methane were previously detected in vapor emanating from cracks in Enceladus’ surface.
“We conclude that some of the CH4 (methane) detected in the plume of Enceladus might, in principle, be produced by methanogens,” the researchers wrote.
Study researcher, Ruth- Sophie Taubner, from the University of Vienna, and her team, exposed the methanogen, M. okinawensis, to an environment similar to the hydrothermal vents on Enceladus’ seafloor. The researchers found that the microbes were able to grow well and produce methane.
If alien life were to exist on Saturn’s moon, then it would possibly share the same characteristics as the M. okinawensis methanogen. It could also explain the presence of methane on Enceladus.
Taubner and her colleagues also modeled the water-rock formation that would occur in the moon’s interior and found that these reactions can produce large amounts of molecular hydrogen. This means that Enceladus can sustain methanogenic organisms such as M. okinawensis.
However, Simon Rittmann, of the University of Vienna and co-author of the paper, said that the latest results should be taken with a grain of salt as the data obtained was purely on laboratory study.
Image Source: NASA.gov