Life on Europa

Published: Tuesday 29 February 2000

If there is life anywhere else in our solar system, it is most likely to be found on Europa, one of the 16 moons orbiting Jupiter. According to a new report in the journal Nature , there is strong evidence that beneath Europa's frozen exterior of ice lies an ocean of liquid water -- one of the essential ingredients for all living organisms. Many scientists believe that this vast subterranean sea could host living microorganisms similar in size and complexity to bacteria found on Earth. Europa's orbital path around Jupiter lies deep within this powerful magnetic field, so it receives a continuous barrage of electrified particles or ions. According to Christopher Chyba, associate professor (research) of geological and environmental sciences, Stanford University, California, USA, when these ions slam into the icy surface of the moon, chemical reactions are likely to occur, transforming frozen molecules of water and carbon dioxide into new organic compounds such as formaldehyde. The most common bacteria on Earth, Hyphomicrobium , survives on formaldehyde as its sole source of carbon. Chyba believes that similar formaldehyde-feeding microbes could be alive and swimming in Europa's subsurface ocean ( Stanford News , January 26, 2000).

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