Humans cannot hope to survive life on Mars without plenty of protection from the surface radiation, freezing night temperatures and dust storms on the red planet. So they could be excused for marveling at humble Antarctic lichen that has shown itself capable of going beyond survival and adapting to life in simulated Martian conditions.
The mere feat of surviving temperatures as low as -51 degrees C and enduring a radiation bombardment during a 34-day experiment might seem like an accomplishment by itself. But the lichen, a symbiotic mass of fungi and algae, also proved it could adapt physiologically to living a normal life in such harsh Martian conditions—as long as the lichen lived under "protected" conditions shielded from much of the radiation within "micro-niches" such as cracks in the Martian soil or rocks.
The lichen chosen for the experiment, called P. chlorophanum, has proven itself a survival champion even before the Mars simulation. Researchers removed lichen samples for testing from its home atop the rocky Black Ridge in Antarctica's North Victoria Land—a frozen, dry landscape not unlike that of many places on Mars.
Similar lichens have shown they can survive exposure to the vacuum of space as well as space radiation. The past experiments conducted by the European Space Agency aboard Russian FOTON satellites and the International Space Station included de Vera as a co-investigator.
The latest Mars simulation experiment did not try to simulate the Martian dust storms that can blanket the entire planet for a month. But de Vera points out that lichen can survive in a resting state for thousands of years on Earth while covered with dust, snow or ice.