The Martian Chronicles
Arctic Special - Issue 7, Autumn 2000

Biology of Haughton Crater
by Charles Cockell

A patch of flowers in Haughton Crater.

A patch of flowers in Haughton Crater.
The Haughton Impact Crater is set in a polar desert biome in the high arctic. Although finding environments that are exactly Mars-like is impossible on earth, an impact crater in a polar region is the best analog we have. Our work is focused on understanding the types of habitats that are made possible by an impact event and the types of life that colonize craters. We are studying the cyanobacteria (an ancient lineage of photosynthetic bacteria) that live in the impact shocked rocks and we are examining the types of microbes that live in the lakes inside the crater, particularly the cyanobacterial mats. If there was ever life on Mars, then this crater might be used to refine our search criteria for life. We are also interested in studying how these microbes survive the extreme environment by examining the types of UV screening compounds they produce to protect themselves from 24 hours of UV exposure, since UV radiation on Mars is 1,000 times more damaging to DNA than on earth. In addition to its relevance to Mars, our work will provide valuable insights into the patterns of colonization in craters in general and also the biology of high arctic deserts. By characterizing the microbial populations of the crater we contribute towards other work in Canada to understand the ecology of the high arctic. Over the next few years we will incorporate the biology program at Haughton with simulated mars exploration from the Mars Arctic Research Station.