Animation: New Water Map of Mars
The hunt for water on Mars has always been a point of interest for researchers.
Earth has life almost everywhere water exists. Water is an ideal target for finding lifeforms, like microbes, that may exist on other planets.
And if Mars is to become a future home, knowing where water exists will be necessary for our survival.
Both NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA) have special instruments searching for water on the red planet. After 10 years of in-depth investigation, their latest findings suggest a new “water map” for Mars.
Where Did the Water Go?
Many people know Mars as a dry and dusty planet, but it hasn’t always been that way.
Approximately 4.1 to 3.8 billion years ago, Mars had a massive ocean called Oceanus Borealis. It dominated the northern hemisphere of the planet. Specific planetary conditions at that time let water exist on its surface. Changes in temperature, climate, and geology over the years gradually pushed water out to the atmosphere or into the ground.
Up to 99% of this ocean water is trapped within the planet’s crust, locked within special rocks called hydrous minerals.
Hydrous minerals are essentially rocks that have water (or its two main elements, hydrogen and oxygen), incorporated into their chemical structure.
There are four main classes of hydrous minerals: silicates, sulfates, silicas, and carbonates. While these minerals look pretty similar to the naked eye, their chemical compositions and structural arrangements vary. They are detectable by sophisticated equipment and can tell scientists how water geologically changes over time.
The new water map of Mars actually highlights the location of these hydrous minerals. It is a geological map of the rocks that are holding what remains of Mars’s ancient ocean.
Other Sources of Water on Mars
Despite being a “graveyard” for the bulk of the planet’s ocean, hydrous minerals are not the only source of water on Mars.
Water ice is present at both of Mars’s poles. The northern polar ice cap contains the only visible water on the planet, while the southern pole covers its water with a frozen carbon-dioxide cap.
In 2020, radar analyses suggested the presence of liquid water, potentially part of a network of underground saltwater lakes, close to the southern pole. In 2022, new evidence for this liquid water suggested that the planet may still be geothermally active.
More frozen water may be locked away in the deep subsurface, far below what current surveying equipment is able to inspect.
Mapping Out the Next Missions
The new water map is highlighting areas of interest for future exploration on Mars.
There is a small chance that hydrous minerals may be actively forming near water sources. Finding where they co-exist with known areas of buried frozen water provides possible opportunities for extracting water.
ESA’s Rosalind Franklin Rover will land in Oxia Planum, a region rich in hydrous clays, to investigate how water shaped the region and whether life once began on Mars.
Many more investigations and studies are developing, but for now, scientists are just getting their toes wet as they explore what hydrous minerals can tell us of Mars’s watery past.
Visualized: What Lives in Your Gut Microbiome?
The human gut microbiome contains a world of microbes. We look at the the bacteria that deeply affect our health and well-being.
Visualized: What Lives in Your Gut Microbiome
Inside all of us lies a complex ecosystem of microbes. It includes bacteria, fungi, and even viruses that live in virtually every part of our bodies.
Researchers are continuing to discover how deeply connected our overall gastrointestinal health—gut health—is to these microbes.
Because bacteria outnumber all other microbes, we take a look at which ones live inside of us and what they do.
The Bacteria of the Gut Microbiome
The gut microbiome is composed of six main types of microbes. Each of these types of microbes has a unique function and role within the human body:
- Firmicutes: Firmicutes break down complex carbohydrates and produce short-chain fatty acids for energy. They help maintain the functioning of the gut barrier, which obstructs bacteria, harmful microorganisms, and toxins from entering the bloodstream through the intestinal tracks. Firmicutes are also linked to obesity and metabolic disorders when imbalanced.
- Actinomycetota: Actinomycetota break down complex carbs and produce vitamins B12 and K2, which are crucial for calcium absorption and energy generation in the body. They also protect the gut from harmful pathogens.
- Pseudomonadota: Pseudomonadota lowers the gut’s redox potential, a measure of the balance between oxidants and antioxidants in the gastrointestinal tract. This is important for breaking down, storing, and using energy. They do this by producing short-chain fatty acids and breaking down complex molecules, promoting the growth of other beneficial gut microbes.
- Fusobacteriota: Fusobacteriota can activate inflammatory responses to fight pathogens. But when imbalanced, they can contribute to inflammation and disease, such as periodontal disease.
- Bacteroides: Bacteroides break down complex carbohydrates, regulate the immune system, and produce vitamins and metabolites important for overall health in the human gut microbiome.
- Other: The “other” category includes a diverse range of microbes that contribute to various functions within the gut. These include various types of bacteria including TM7 (oral bacteria), cyanobacteria, acidobacteria, and verrucomicrobiota.
Dynamic Composition of the Microbiome
Interestingly, the proportions of these six microbe populations vary throughout the gastrointestinal tract.
|Section of Gut Microbiome
|Exponential Microbial Population (CFU/ml)
|Duodenum (Small Intestine)
|Jejunum (Small Intestine)
|Ileum (Small Intestine)
The presence, absence, and dominance of each of these microbes is based on their functionality. For example, in the mouth and esophagus, the microbial populations are relatively low. But the dominant microbe found here, Firmicutes, helps begin the process of breaking down sugars and carbohydrates from ingested food.
Meanwhile, the stomach is a harsh environment, with low pH levels that limit microbial growth. A small population of microbes is still present here.
The microbial population becomes more diverse in the small intestine. Here, Firmicutes and Actinomycetota are the dominant species, but Bacteroides and other microbes begin to make up a more substantial portion of the population.
The microbial population further diversifies in the large intestine, with Bacteroides and other microbes making up the majority of the population.
These proportions of bacteria in the gut microbiome represent the typical ratios for the average human body. But they can be influenced by factors including medical history, diet, age, and even geographical location.
The Gut-Brain Axis
The six microbe populations have effects way outside the gastrointestinal tract too.
The Gut-Brain Axis is a two-way link between the gut and the brain. This connection involves physical pathways and various forms of communication, including hormones, metabolism, and immunity.
Through these connections, the gut sends the brain signals when troubled. A distressed stomach or intestine is linked to anxiety, stress, depression, and other mental health issues. Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is another example of a disease influenced by the gut microbiome.
At the same time, the brain also signals the gut when distressed. Scientists believe that emotions like anger, anxiety, sadness, and happiness trigger gut issues.
Towards a Healthy Gut
The gut is known as our body’s “second brain” and more and more people are now paying close attention to their gut health.
Over the last two decades, we’ve gained a better understanding of how the microbiome affects human health. One example of this is the gut-brain axis. Changes in the microbiome have also been connected to various diseases.
Understanding this microbiome has opened up new opportunities in medicine and healthcare, as the knowledge of the role of every microbe could also uncover new treatments for illnesses linked to it.
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