Colour Peak: An analogue environment for late Noachian Mars

Macey, Michael C.; Fox-Powell, Mark; Ramkissoon, Nisha K.; Stephens, Ben P.; Barton, Tim; Schwenzer, Susanne P.; Pearson, Victoria K.; Cousins, Claire R. and Olsson-Francis, Karen Colour Peak: An analogue environment for late Noachian Mars. In: Astrobiology Australasia Meeting, 9-11 Sep 2020, Online.

Abstract

The martian surface cannot sustain liquid water today, but there is evidence water was present during the Noachian era. The transition of the martian climate into the Hesperian would have resulted in saline and sulfuric waters. Terrestrial analogue environments that possess a chemistry like these proposed waters can be used to develop an understanding of organisms that could have persisted. Here we present the chemistry and microbiome of Colour Peak, a sulfidic and saline spring system located within the Canadian High Arctic.

Nucleic acids were extracted from the microbes in the sediments and the microbiome was characterised by the amplification and sequencing of 16S rRNA gene amplicons. The elemental composition of the fluids and sediment was determined by ICP-OES and compared with brines determined from the chemistry of the “Rocknest” sample at Yellowknife Bay, Gale Crater (Mars) by thermochemical modelling. Gibbs energy values were calculated from this fluid chemistry to identify potentially viable metabolisms.

Analysis of the chemistries of the Colour Peak fluids confirmed a composition like the thermochemically modelled fluid, providing justification for the classification of Colour Peak as an appropriate analogue environment to investigate the habitability of former martian waters. Profiling of the Colour Peak microbial community revealed domination by bacteria associated with oxidation of reduced sulfur species and carbon dioxide fixation. Gibbs energy values calculated using the modelled martian fluid chemistry demonstrated that oxidation of reduced sulfur species was also viable in this chemical environment under aerobic and anaerobic conditions. These results demonstrate microbial sulfide oxidation is thermodynamically viable using both modelled and environmental proxies for former martian aqueous environments.

This study highlights that metabolisms utilising the oxidation of reduced sulfur species could have been thermodynamically viable in ancient martian aqueous environments. Further work is needed to test this viability and the subsequent potential for biosignature formation.

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