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Life on Mars could be possible – based on a breakthrough discovery in the world’s driest desert.

Scientists have found bacteria in South America’s Atacama Desert that can lie dormant without rain for decades before being ‘reactivated’.

The Atacama in Chile – which gets less than 20mm of rain annually on average, and can go many years without any rainfall at all – is the most similar place on Earth to barren Mars.

The finding that bacteria can exist for decades without water in such an environment on Earth suggests similar tiny forms of life could be hiding under the surface of the frozen Red Planet.

Professor Dirk Schulze-Makuch, lead author of the study at Washington State University, said: ‘We believe these microbial communities can lay dormant for hundreds or even thousands of years in conditions very similar to what you would find on a planet like Mars.’

When it rained, experts found several species of single-celled organisms in the soil came to life in the desert. As the moisture left the soil the microbes then began to revert to their original dormant state, according to the study published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The study said: ‘This is really the first time anyone has been able to identify a persistent form of life living in the soil of the Atacama Desert.’