Scientists have found bacteria in the frozen wastes of Antarctica that can survive on air alone without the sunlight or geothermal energy that powers all other known ecosystems. The discovery may change our ideas when pondering the forms extra-terrestrial life might take.

A team of scientists led by Belinda Ferrari of UNSW in Sydney, Australia, report the stunning finding in a paper in Nature.

The cold and remote Antarctic has desert regions that are hostile to the few living things that survive on the rest of the continent. Plummeting temperatures, limited water, carbon and nitrogen, months of darkness, searing UV radiation, and persistent cycles of freezing and thawing that can rot the very stones, all make it an unlikely home for diverse ecosystems.

Yet that’s exactly what the researchers found in the thin desert soils, at least at the microbial level. This posed something of a puzzle: how do these diverse communities of single-celled organisms survive in such extreme conditions?

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