The water activity of pure water is 1.0, where all of its molecules are unaffected by dissolved solute and free to mediate biological processes. Terrestrial seawater has a water activity of 0.98. Decades of research, largely from the food industry, have shown that few known organisms can grow when water activity falls below 0.9, and very few can survive below 0.85.
Based on the chemical composition of salts that precipitated out of ancient Martian waters, Tosca and his colleagues project that the water activity of Martian water was at most 0.78 to 0.86, and quite possibly reaching below 0.5 as evaporation continued to concentrate the brines, making it an environment uninhabitable by terrestrial species.
"This doesn't rule out life forms of a type we've never encountered," Knoll says, "but life that could originate and persist in such a salty setting would require biochemistry distinct from any known among even the most robust halophiles on Earth."
The scientists say that the handful of terrestrial halophiles -- species that can tolerate high salinity -- descended from ancestors that first evolved in purer waters. Based on what we know about Earth, they say that it's difficult to imagine life arising in acidic, oxidizing brines like those inferred for ancient Mars.
"People have known for hundreds of years that salt prevents microbial growth," Tosca says. "It's why meat was salted in the days before refrigeration."
Tosca and Knoll say it's possible there may have been more dilute waters earlier in Mars' history, or elsewhere on the
|Contact: Steve Bradt|