The hunt for alien life starts in Earth’s most extreme places

Microbiologist Jill Mikucki went to Antarctica last year on a special mission: She was looking for signs of what life on other planets and moons might look like. Her work is part of an effort to understand the origins of life—not just in our world, but in the solar system—by examining the organisms that thrive in Earth’s most extreme environments.

In a salty, ferrous glacial waterfall known as Blood Falls, her team previously discovered a new strain of bacteria adapted to survive in brutally cold temperatures. The landscape looks almost Martian.

By studying the chemistry, physical properties and biology of Antarctica’s icy ecosystems, scientists are hoping they’ll not only discover what makes life at extremes tick, but also determine where to look—and what to look for—when they send satellites and robots to explore other potentially habitable planets and moons. Antarctica’s ice-covered coastal regions and frozen lakes, for instance, mimic the geology that planetary scientists expect to encounter in the moons of Jupiter and Saturn, which have ice-shelled salty oceans.

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