The Rhynie Chert, Scotland, and the search for life on Mars

Preston, Louisa J. and Genge, Matthew J. (2010). The Rhynie Chert, Scotland, and the search for life on Mars. Astrobiology, 10(5) pp. 549–560.



Knowledge of ancient terrestrial hydrothermal systems—how they preserve biological information and how this information can be detected—is important in unraveling the history of life on Earth and, perhaps, that of extinct life on Mars. The Rhynie Chert in Scotland was originally deposited as siliceous sinter from Early Devonian hot springs and contains exceptionally well-preserved fossils of some of the earliest plants and animals to colonize the land. The aim of this study was to identify biomolecules within the samples through Fourier transform infrared (FTIR) spectroscopy and aid current techniques in identification of ancient hot spring deposits and their biological components on Mars. Floral and faunal fossils within the Rhynie Chert are commonly known; but new, FTIR spectroscopic analyses of these fossils has allowed for identification of biomolecules such as aliphatic hydrocarbons and OH molecules that are potentially derived from the fossilized biota and their environment. Gas chromatograph–mass spectrometer (GCMS) data were used to identify n-alkanes; however, this alone cannot be related to the samples’ biota. Silicified microfossils are more resistant to weathering or dissolution, which renders them more readily preservable over time. This is of particular interest in astropaleontological research, considering the similarities in the early evolution of Mars and Earth.

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