Infrared Spectroscopic Detection of Biosignatures at Lake Tírez, Spain: Implications for Mars

Preston, Louisa J.; Barcenilla, Rebeca; Dartnell, Lewis R.; Kucukkilic-Stephens, Ezgi and Olsson-Francis, Karen (2020). Infrared Spectroscopic Detection of Biosignatures at Lake Tírez, Spain: Implications for Mars. Astrobiology, 20(2) pp. 15–25.

DOI: https://doi.org/10.1089/ast.2019.2106

Abstract

The detection of potential biosignatures with mineral matrices is part of a multifaceted approach in the search for life on other planetary bodies. The 2020 ExoMars Rosalind Franklin rover includes within its payload three IR spectrometers in the form of ISEM (Infrared Spectrometer for ExoMars), MicrOmega, and Ma-MISS (Mars Multispectral Imager for Subsurface Studies). The use of this technique in the detection and characterization of biosignatures is of great value. Organic materials are often co-deposited in terrestrial evaporites and as such have been proposed as relevant analogs in the search for life on Mars. This study focuses on Ca-sulfates collected from the hypersaline Tírez Lake in Spain. Mid infrared and visible near infrared analysis of soils, salt crusts, and crystals with green and red layering indicative of microbial colonization of the samples was acquired from across the lake and identified the main mineral to be gypsum with inputs of carbonate and silica. Organic functional groups that could be attributed to amides and carboxylic acids were identified as well as chlorophyll; however, due to the strong mineralogical absorptions observed, these were hard to unambiguously discern. Taxonomical assignment demonstrated that the archaeal community within the samples was dominated by the halophilic extremophile Halobacteriaceae while the bacterial community was dominated by the class Nocardiaceae. The results of this research highlight that sulfates on Mars are a mixed blessing, acting as an effective host for organic matter preservation but also a material that masks the presence of organic functional groups when analyzed with spectroscopic tools similar to those due to fly on the 2020 ExoMars rover. A suite of complementary analytical techniques therefore should be used to support the spectral identification of any candidate extraterrestrial biosignatures.

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