Experimental Identification of Potential Martian Biosignatures in Open and Closed Systems

Ramkissoon, Nisha K.; Macey, Michael C.; Kucukkilic-Stephens, Ezgi; Barton, Timothy; Steele, Andrew; Johnson, David N.; Stephens, Ben P.; Schwenzer, Susanne P.; Pearson, Victoria K. and Olsson-Francis, Karen (2024). Experimental Identification of Potential Martian Biosignatures in Open and Closed Systems. Astrobiology, 24(5) pp. 538–558.

DOI: https://doi.org/10.1089/ast.2023.0013


NASA's Perseverance and ESA's Rosalind Franklin rovers have the scientific goal of searching for evidence of ancient life on Mars. Geochemical biosignatures that form because of microbe-mineral interactions could play a key role in achieving this, as they can be preserved for millions of years on Earth, and the same could be true for Mars. Previous laboratory experiments have explored the formation of biosignatures under closed systems, but these do not represent the open systems that are found in natural martian environments, such as channels and lakes. In this study, we have conducted environmental simulation experiments using a global regolith simulant (OUCM-1), a thermochemically modelled groundwater, and an anaerobic microbial community to explore the formation of geochemical biosignatures within plausible open and closed systems on Mars. This initial investigation showed differences in the diversity of the microbial community developed after 28 days. In an open-system simulation (flow-through experiment), the acetogenic Acetobacterium (49% relative abundance) and the sulfate reducer Desulfosporomusa (43% relative abundance) were the dominant genera. Whereas in the batch experiment, the sulfate reducers Desulfovibrio, Desulfomicrobium, and Desulfuromonas (95% relative abundance in total) were dominant. We also found evidence of enhanced mineral dissolution within the flow-through experiment, but there was little evidence of secondary deposits in the presence of biota. In contrast, SiO2 and Fe deposits formed within the batch experiment with biota but not under abiotic conditions. The results from these initial experiments indicate that different geochemical biosignatures can be generated between open and closed systems, and therefore, biosignature formation in open systems warrants further investigation.

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