Carbonate precipitation under bulk acidic conditions as a potential biosignature for searching life on Mars

Fernández-Remolar, David C.; Preston, Louisa J.; Sánchez-Román, Mónica; Izawa, Matthew R. M.; Huang, L.; Southam, Gordon; Banerjee, Neil R.; Osinski, Gordon R.; Flemming, Roberta; Gómez-Ortíz, David; Prieto Ballesteros, Olga; Rodríguez, Nuria; Amils, Ricardo and Dyar, M. Darby (2012). Carbonate precipitation under bulk acidic conditions as a potential biosignature for searching life on Mars. Earth and Planetary Science Letters, 351 pp. 13–26.




Recent observations of carbonate minerals in ancient Martian rocks have been interpreted as evidence for the former presence of circumneutral solutions optimal for carbonate precipitation. Sampling from surface and subsurface regions of the low-pH system of Río Tinto has shown, unexpectedly, that carbonates can form under diverse macroscopic physicochemical conditions ranging from very low to neutral pH (1.5–7.0). A multi-technique approach demonstrates that carbonate minerals are closely associated with microbial activity. Carbonates occur in the form of micron-size carbonate precipitates under bacterial biofilms, mineralization of subsurface colonies, and possible biogenic microstructures including globules, platelets and dumbbell morphologies. We propose that carbonate precipitation in the low-pH environment of Río Tinto is a process enabled by microbially-mediated neutralization driven by the reduction of ferric iron coupled to the oxidation of biomolecules in microbially-maintained circumneutral oases, where the local pH (at the scale of cells or cell colonies) can be much different than in the macroscopic environment. Acidic conditions were likely predominant in vast regions of Mars over the last four billion years of planetary evolution. Ancient Martian microbial life inhabiting low-pH environments could have precipitated carbonates similar to those observed at Río Tinto. Preservation of carbonates at Río Tinto over geologically significant timescales suggests that similarly-formed carbonate minerals could also be preserved on Mars. Such carbonates could soon be observed by the Mars Science Laboratory, and by future missions to the red planet.

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