SCIENTISTS searching for signs of life on Mars may have made a key discovery while carrying out investigations at a North-East mine, The Northern Echo has learned.

Conditions in Britain’s deepest mine at Boulby, North Yorkshire, are similar to those on Mars – and experts are looking at whether life can exist in the extreme conditions in a £2m research programme.

It is believed streams of brine run across the surface of Mars which could be teeming with similar microbes.

Professor Charles Cockell, from the UK Centre of Astrobiology at Edinburgh University, has found species of micro-organism in the potash mine which are currently being DNA-tested as part of the Mars Analogues for Space Exploration programme.

The tiny living organisms could be new species – but even if they are not, they will tell scientists about how life on Mars may process different elements – giving vital clues about finding life there ahead of a 2018 European Union Mars mission.

Prof Cockell said: “We have found some samples, have extracted DNA from them and are in the process of getting results.

“We are looking at life that lives in very dark, salty environments, with not much light or energy.

“At present we are not sure if they are new species as we are still analysing the results, but they could well be.

“They are just single-cell creatures, types of bacteria.

“But to be honest rather than finding new species, what is much more important is what they are actually doing down there, how they use sulphur, nitrogen and so on, and what they are actually doing to those elements and it also tells us about the geology cycle.”

Space exploration instruments are also being tested in the extreme conditions at Boulby ahead of an unmanned Mars mission planned for 2018.

Last week Prof Cockell and his team were testing a panoramic camera, a close up imager and mineral testing equipment, which will all be used in the exploration mission, deep under the North Yorkshire coast.

Potash and salt have been extracted from Boulby since the 1970s, but the rocks also hold microbes too small to see by eye.

Boulby Mine, operated by Cleveland Potash, is one of the deepest in Europe and stretches across North Yorkshire and Teesside.