The barren, Mars-like heart of the Atacama Desert in northern Chile seemed to presage bad news for discovering life on the Red Planet. Researchers failed to find organisms in the soil, which gets rain maybe once a decade and may be as arid as places on Mars. Now Raina Maier of the University of Arizona and her colleagues have discovered that the soil is not sterile after all. They dug every 1,000 feet for a 120-mile stretch, cleaning their hand trowels with disinfectant before each scoop. Earlier researchers shoveled down to four inches; this time investigators went eight to 12 inches deep. In the November 19, 2004, Science, they report that, when moistened, samples from areas devoid of plant life for at least a million years yielded bacteria, which may have survived in a state of suspended animation. The NASA Phoenix mission will attempt a similar experiment on Mars in 2008.
This article was originally published with the title "Parched Presence"