The Astrobiological Potential of Polar Dunes on Mars

  • Ákos Kereszturi
  • Szaniszló Bérczi
  • András Horváth
  • Tamás Pócs
  • András Sik
  • Szathmáry Eörs
Part of the Cellular Origin, Life in Extreme Habitats and Astrobiology book series (COLE, volume 24)


Analysis of seasonally frost-covered Martian dunes and terrestrial extremophiles in cryptobiotic crust revealed that circumpolar dark dunes on Mars form an ideal habitat for hypothetic photosynthesizing organisms on the planet. In springtime, the dark basaltic dunes show ephemeral seepage-like features on their surface, which (based on theoretical calculations) may be the result of interfacial water or bulk brine-related movement. Such a thin water film may also decompose the aggressive oxidants there. Temperature values in spring around noon could be favorable for metabolism of known extremophiles on Earth. During this warming period, the water loss could be reduced by densely packed grain structure of the soil, hygroscopic salts, and the embedding polysaccharide-like materials, as it was observed in the samples of cryptobiotic crust from hot and cold deserts on Earth. The best periods for H2O uptake are the nighttime hours.

Terrestrial cyanobacteria living 2–4 mm below the rock surface in the so-called cryptobiotic crust demonstrate possible analogous strategies for survival in the Martian environment. On Mars, even a thin grain layer coverage decreases water loss rate and screens UV radiation. The organisms we collected in hot and cold deserts on Earth showed examples for survival strategies like seasonal movement, task sharing in UV screening, and a special method called optical fiber strategy (whereby organisms conduct light to the deeper subsurface). The terrestrial observation of recovery of cyanobacteria in minutes after wetting also supports the supposed long dormant-short active life cycle of hypothetical organisms on Mars.

The circumpolar region on Mars has been found to be one of the best possible habitats today, because water ice and springtime-elevated temperature are both present there. These dark dunes are less oxidized than the average Martian surface, and their grain structure enhances the trapping of volatiles, while their dark color helps the fast warming in daytime.


Cold Desert Mars Global Surveyor Martian Surface Mucilaginous Sheath Hygroscopic Material 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.



Compact Reconnaissance Imaging Spectrometer for Mars


Dark Dune Spots


High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment


High Resolution Stereo Camera


Mars Orbiter Camera


Mars Orbiter Laser Altimeter


Thermal Emission Spectrometer


Hypothetical Mars Surface Organism



The work is sponsored by the European Space Agency, the ESA ECS-project No. 98076 and the Hungarian Space Office.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2012

Authors and Affiliations

  • Ákos Kereszturi
    • 1
    • 2
    • 5
  • Szaniszló Bérczi
    • 1
    • 2
    • 3
  • András Horváth
    • 1
  • Tamás Pócs
    • 1
    • 4
  • András Sik
    • 1
    • 2
  • Szathmáry Eörs
    • 1
  1. 1.New Europe School for Theoretical Biology and EcologyBudapest, 5.Hungary
  2. 2.Institute of Geography and Earth SciencesEotvos Lorand University of SciencesBudapest Pázmány 1/cHungary
  3. 3.Institute of PhysicsEotvos Lorand University of SciencesBudapest Pázmány 1/AHungary
  4. 4.Department of BotanyEszterházy Károly CollegeEgerHungary
  5. 5.Konkoly Astronomical Institute, Research Centre for Astronomy and Earth SciencesHungarian Academy of SciencesBudapestHungary

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