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Life on Saturn's moon Titan: Who needs water anyway?

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Temperatures there are far colder than those found at Pitch Lake, the researchers acknowledge. Still, they say, the discovery marks Pitch Lake as a useful stepping-off point for trying to understand the potential for life in what they call liquid-hydrocarbon environments on Titan.

Scientific sleuthing in tar pits

Compared with bacteria and other single-celled organisms found at natural pitch seeps such as the La Brea Tar Pits in Los Angeles, the organisms at Pitch Lake "were distinctly different from there," says Dr. Schulze-Makuch, an astrobiologist at Washington State University in Pullman, Wash. "About 30 percent of the species we detected are unknown organisms."

But the more profound implication of the discovery may lay in the observation that these organisms appear to thrive on far less water than conventional wisdom holds is needed to keep microbes active and alive, team members say.

In its Mars exploration program, NASA's mantra has been "follow the water." It's a bumper-sticker phrase that highlights the importance scientists have attached to understanding Mar's climate history. That, in turn, will yield important clues on whether the red planet once hosted -- or may still host -- at least simple forms of organic life.

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