Volcanic controls on the microbial habitability of Mars‐analogue hydrothermal environments

Moreras‐Marti, Arola; Fox-Powell, Mark; Zerkle, Aubrey L.; Stueeken, Eva; Gazquez, Fernando; Brand, Helen E. A.; Galloway, Toni; Purkamo, Lotta and Cousins, Claire R. (2021). Volcanic controls on the microbial habitability of Mars‐analogue hydrothermal environments. Geobiology, 19(5) pp. 489–509.

DOI: https://doi.org/10.1111/gbi.12459


Due to their potential to support chemolithotrophic life, relic hydrothermal systems on Mars are a key target for astrobiological exploration. We analysed water and sediments at six geothermal pools from the rhyolitic Kerlingarfjöll and basaltic Kverkfjöll volcanoes in Iceland, to investigate the localised controls on the habitability of these systems in terms of microbial community function. Our results show that host lithology plays a minor role in pool geochemistry and authigenic mineralogy, with the system geochemistry primarily controlled by deep volcanic processes. We find that by dictating pool water pH and redox conditions, deep volcanic processes are the primary control on microbial community structure and function, with water input from the proximal glacier acting as a secondary control by regulating pool temperatures. Kerlingarfjöll pools have reduced, circum-neutral CO2-rich waters with authigenic calcite-, pyrite- and kaolinite-bearing sediments. The dominant metabolisms inferred from community profiles obtained by 16S rRNA gene sequencing are methanogenesis, respiration of sulphate and sulphur (S0) oxidation. In contrast, Kverkfjöll pools have oxidised, acidic (pH < 3) waters with high concentrations of SO42- and high argillic alteration, resulting in Al-phyllosilicate-rich sediments. The prevailing metabolisms here are iron oxidation, sulphur oxidation and nitrification. Where analogous ice-fed hydrothermal systems existed on early Mars, similar volcanic processes would likely have controlled localised metabolic potential and thus habitability. Moreover, such systems offer several habitability advantages, including a localised source of metabolic redox pairs for chemolithotrophic microorganisms and accessible trace metals. Similar pools could have provided transient environments for life on Mars; when paired with surface or near-surface ice, these habitability niches could have persisted into the Amazonian. Additionally, they offer a confined site for biosignature formation and deposition that lends itself well to in situ robotic exploration.

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