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Life on other planets? Scientists look to Ethiopia first

The Danakil Depression is the northern part of the Afar Triangle in Ethiopia. The geological depression arose following the shifting of three tectonic plates in the Horn of Africa. The Danakil Depression is the hottest place on Earth in terms of year-round average temperatures; the depression is located at a very low level relative to sea level and the desert receives very little in the way of rainfall. Bridging both ends of the area are two active volcanoes — Erta Ale and Mount Ayalu.

The environmental conditions are extreme in comparison to most areas on the planet. Water is close to boiling, as it bubbles up from underground; there are very high salt concentrations; and clouds of chlorine and sulphur vapor fog the air. As an indication of the conditions, the upwelling water is 90 degrees Celsius and highly acidic.

Scientists from the Europlanet 2020 Research Infrastructure have reasoned that if life can exist under these conditions then it is possible that life has the potential to exist on other planets with more extreme conditions.

The Europlanet 2020 Research Infrastructure (RI) is a €9.95 million project to integrate and support planetary science activities across Europe.

Sorting through the data, the scientists have identified three different ecosystems within the Danakil Depression. Each of these has been studied for geomorphology and geochemical composition, and for signs of microbial life. Given that any microorganisms present are most likely not to be culturable, the focus is on using advanced molecular biological methods to scan for genetic material.

Several microorganisms have been detected through DNA extraction. These organisms are currently being profiled and examined against several environmental factors, including pH, temperature, humidity and oxygen concentrations. The organisms, once characterized, are likely to be of great interest to astrobiologists.

The findings have yet to be written as a peer reviewed paper. However, the findings have been discussed at international conferences and further research is progressing.

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Written By

Dr. Tim Sandle is Digital Journal's Editor-at-Large for science news. Tim specializes in science, technology, environmental, business, and health journalism. He is additionally a practising microbiologist; and an author. He is also interested in history, politics and current affairs.

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