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1.  Chloromethane release from carbonaceous meteorite affords new insight into Mars lander findings 
Scientific Reports  2014;4:7010.
Controversy continues as to whether chloromethane (CH3Cl) detected during pyrolysis of Martian soils by the Viking and Curiosity Mars landers is indicative of organic matter indigenous to Mars. Here we demonstrate CH3Cl release (up to 8 μg/g) during low temperature (150–400°C) pyrolysis of the carbonaceous chondrite Murchison with chloride or perchlorate as chlorine source and confirm unequivocally by stable isotope analysis the extraterrestrial origin of the methyl group (δ2H +800 to +1100‰, δ13C −19.2 to +10‰,). In the terrestrial environment CH3Cl released during pyrolysis of organic matter derives from the methoxyl pool. The methoxyl pool in Murchison is consistent both in magnitude (0.044%) and isotope signature (δ2H +1054 ± 626‰, δ13C +43.2 ± 38.8‰,) with that of the CH3Cl released on pyrolysis. Thus CH3Cl emissions recorded by Mars lander experiments may be attributed to methoxyl groups in undegraded organic matter in meteoritic debris reaching the Martian surface being converted to CH3Cl with perchlorate or chloride in Martian soil. However we cannot discount emissions arising additionally from organic matter of indigenous origin. The stable isotope signatures of CH3Cl detected on Mars could potentially be utilized to determine its origin by distinguishing between terrestrial contamination, meteoritic infall and indigenous Martian sources.
PMCID: PMC4230006  PMID: 25394222
2.  Raman Spectroscopic Analysis of Geological and Biogeological Specimens of Relevance to the ExoMars Mission 
Astrobiology  2013;13(6):543-549.
A novel miniaturized Raman spectrometer is scheduled to fly as part of the analytical instrumentation package on an ESA remote robotic lander in the ESA/Roscosmos ExoMars mission to search for evidence for extant or extinct life on Mars in 2018. The Raman spectrometer will be part of the first-pass analytical stage of the sampling procedure, following detailed surface examination by the PanCam scanning camera unit on the ExoMars rover vehicle. The requirements of the analytical protocol are stringent and critical; this study represents a laboratory blind interrogation of specimens that form a list of materials that are of relevance to martian exploration and at this stage simulates a test of current laboratory instrumentation to highlight the Raman technique strengths and possible weaknesses that may be encountered in practice on the martian surface and from which future studies could be formulated. In this preliminary exercise, some 10 samples that are considered terrestrial representatives of the mineralogy and possible biogeologically modified structures that may be identified on Mars have been examined with Raman spectroscopy, and conclusions have been drawn about the viability of the unambiguous spectral identification of biomolecular life signatures. It is concluded that the Raman spectroscopic technique does indeed demonstrate the capability to identify biomolecular signatures and the mineralogy in real-world terrestrial samples with a very high degree of success without any preconception being made about their origin and classification. Key Words: Biosignatures—Mars Exploration Rovers—Raman spectroscopy—Search for life (biosignatures)—Planetary instrumentation. Astrobiology 13, 543–549.
PMCID: PMC3689185  PMID: 23758166
3.  Dating the Martian meteorite Zagami by the 87Rb-87Sr isochron method with a prototype in situ resonance ionization mass spectrometer 
The geologic history of the Solar System builds on an extensive record of impact flux models, crater counts, and ∼270 kg of lunar samples analyzed in terrestrial laboratories. However, estimates of impactor flux may be biased by the fact that most of the dated Apollo samples were only tenuously connected to an assumed geologic context. Moreover, uncertainties in the modeled cratering rates are significant enough to lead to estimated errors for dates on Mars and the Moon of ∼1 Ga. Given the great cost of sample return missions, combined with the need to sample multiple terrains on multiple planets, we have developed a prototype instrument that can be used for in situ dating to better constrain the age of planetary samples.
We demonstrate the first use of laser ablation resonance ionization mass spectrometry for 87Rb-87Sr isochron dating of geological specimens. The demands of accuracy and precision have required us to meet challenges including regulation of the ambient temperature, measurement of appropriate backgrounds, sufficient ablation laser intensity, avoidance of the defocusing effect of the plasma created by ablation pulses, and shielding of our detector from atoms and ions of other elements.
To test whether we could meaningfully date planetary materials, we have analyzed a piece of the Martian meteorite Zagami. In each of four separate measurements we obtained 87Rb-87Sr isochron ages for Zagami consistent with its published age, and, in both of two measurements that reached completion, we obtained better than 200 Ma precision. Combining all our data into a single isochron with 581 spot analyses gives an 87Rb-87Sr age for this specimen of 360 ±90 Ma.
Our analyses of the Zagami meteorite represent the first successful application of resonance ionization mass spectrometry to isochron geochronology. Furthermore, the technique is miniaturizable for spaceflight and in situ dating on other planetary bodies. © 2014 The Authors. Rapid Communications in Mass Spectrometry published by John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.
PMCID: PMC4297357  PMID: 25641494
4.  The carbon cycle on early Earth—and on Mars? 
One of the goals of the present Martian exploration is to search for evidence of extinct (or even extant) life. This could be redefined as a search for carbon. The carbon cycle (or, more properly, cycles) on Earth is a complex interaction among three reservoirs: the atmosphere; the hydrosphere; and the lithosphere. Superimposed on this is the biosphere, and its presence influences the fixing and release of carbon in these reservoirs over different time-scales. The overall carbon balance is kept at equilibrium on the surface by a combination of tectonic processes (which bury carbon), volcanism (which releases it) and biology (which mediates it). In contrast to Earth, Mars presently has no active tectonic system; neither does it possess a significant biosphere. However, these observations might not necessarily have held in the past. By looking at how Earth's carbon cycles have changed with time, as both the Earth's tectonic structure and a more sophisticated biology have evolved, and also by constructing a carbon cycle for Mars based on the carbon chemistry of Martian meteorites, we investigate whether or not there is evidence for a Martian biosphere.
PMCID: PMC1664679  PMID: 17008211
Earth; Mars; carbon; cycle; life
5.  Bacterial Growth at the High Concentrations of Magnesium Sulfate Found in Martian Soils 
Astrobiology  2012;12(2):98-106.
The martian surface environment exhibits extremes of salinity, temperature, desiccation, and radiation that would make it difficult for terrestrial microbes to survive. Recent evidence suggests that martian soils contain high concentrations of MgSO4 minerals. Through warming of the soils, meltwater derived from subterranean ice-rich regolith may exist for an extended period of time and thus allow the propagation of terrestrial microbes and create significant bioburden at the near surface of Mars. The current report demonstrates that halotolerant bacteria from the Great Salt Plains (GSP) of Oklahoma are capable of growing at high concentrations of MgSO4 in the form of 2 M solutions of epsomite. The epsotolerance of isolates in the GSP bacterial collection was determined, with 35% growing at 2 M MgSO4. There was a complex physiological response to mixtures of MgSO4 and NaCl coupled with other environmental stressors. Growth also was measured at 1 M concentrations of other magnesium and sulfate salts. The complex responses may be partially explained by the pattern of chaotropicity observed for high-salt solutions as measured by agar gelation temperature. Select isolates could grow at the high salt concentrations and low temperatures found on Mars. Survival during repetitive freeze-thaw or drying-rewetting cycles was used as other measures of potential success on the martian surface. Our results indicate that terrestrial microbes might survive under the high-salt, low-temperature, anaerobic conditions on Mars and present significant potential for forward contamination. Stringent planetary protection requirements are needed for future life-detection missions to Mars. Key Words: Analogue—Mars—Planetary protection—Salts—Life in extreme environments. Astrobiology 12, 98–106.
PMCID: PMC3277918  PMID: 22248384
6.  Persistence of Biomarker ATP and ATP-Generating Capability in Bacterial Cells and Spores Contaminating Spacecraft Materials under Earth Conditions and in a Simulated Martian Environment▿  
Applied and Environmental Microbiology  2008;74(16):5159-5167.
Most planetary protection research has concentrated on characterizing viable bioloads on spacecraft surfaces, developing techniques for bioload reduction prior to launch, and studying the effects of simulated martian environments on microbial survival. Little research has examined the persistence of biogenic signature molecules on spacecraft materials under simulated martian surface conditions. This study examined how endogenous adenosine-5′-triphosphate (ATP) would persist on aluminum coupons under simulated martian conditions of 7.1 mbar, full-spectrum simulated martian radiation calibrated to 4 W m−2 of UV-C (200 to 280 nm), −10°C, and a Mars gas mix of CO2 (95.54%), N2 (2.7%), Ar (1.6%), O2 (0.13%), and H2O (0.03%). Cell or spore viabilities of Acinetobacter radioresistens, Bacillus pumilus, and B. subtilis were measured in minutes to hours, while high levels of endogenous ATP were recovered after exposures of up to 21 days. The dominant factor responsible for temporal reductions in viability and loss of ATP was the simulated Mars surface radiation; low pressure, low temperature, and the Mars gas composition exhibited only slight effects. The normal burst of endogenous ATP detected during spore germination in B. pumilus and B. subtilis was reduced by 1 or 2 orders of magnitude following, respectively, 8- or 30-min exposures to simulated martian conditions. The results support the conclusion that endogenous ATP will persist for time periods that are likely to extend beyond the nominal lengths of most surface missions on Mars, and planetary protection protocols prior to launch may require additional rigor to further reduce the presence and abundance of biosignature molecules on spacecraft surfaces.
PMCID: PMC2519281  PMID: 18567687
7.  Models of Formation and Activity of Spring Mounds in the Mechertate-Chrita-Sidi El Hani System, Eastern Tunisia: Implications for the Habitability of Mars 
Life : Open Access Journal  2014;4(3):386-432.
Spring mounds on Earth and on Mars could represent optimal niches of life development. If life ever occurred on Mars, ancient spring deposits would be excellent localities to search for morphological or chemical remnants of an ancient biosphere. In this work, we investigate models of formation and activity of well-exposed spring mounds in the Mechertate-Chrita-Sidi El Hani (MCSH) system, eastern Tunisia. We then use these models to explore possible spring mound formation on Mars. In the MCSH system, the genesis of the spring mounds is a direct consequence of groundwater upwelling, triggered by tectonics and/or hydraulics. As they are oriented preferentially along faults, they can be considered as fault spring mounds, implying a tectonic influence in their formation process. However, the hydraulic pressure generated by the convergence of aquifers towards the surface of the system also allows consideration of an origin as artesian spring mounds. In the case of the MCSH system, our geologic data presented here show that both models are valid, and we propose a combined hydro-tectonic model as the likely formation mechanism of artesian-fault spring mounds. During their evolution from the embryonic (early) to the islet (“island”) stages, spring mounds are also shaped by eolian accumulations and induration processes. Similarly, spring mounds have been suggested to be relatively common in certain provinces on the Martian surface, but their mode of formation is still a matter of debate. We propose that the tectonic, hydraulic, and combined hydro-tectonic models describing the spring mounds at MCSH could be relevant as Martian analogs because: (i) the Martian subsurface may be over pressured, potentially expelling mineral-enriched waters as spring mounds on the surface; (ii) the Martian subsurface may be fractured, causing alignment of the spring mounds in preferential orientations; and (iii) indurated eolian sedimentation and erosional remnants are common features on Mars. The spring mounds further bear diagnostic mineralogic and magnetic properties, in comparison with their immediate surroundings. Consequently, remote sensing techniques can be very useful to identify similar spring mounds on Mars. The mechanisms (tectonic and/or hydraulic) of formation and evolution of spring mounds at the MCSH system are suitable for the proliferation and protection of life respectively. Similarly, life or its resulting biomarkers on Mars may have been protected or preserved under the spring mounds.
PMCID: PMC4206853  PMID: 25370379
Mechertate-Chrita-Sidi El Hani system; Mars habitability; terrestrial analogs; groundwater upwelling; seepage; tectonic model; hydraulic model; fault spring mounds; artesian spring mounds
8.  An instrument design for non-contact detection of biomolecules and minerals on Mars using fluorescence 
We discuss fluorescence as a method to detect polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons and other organic molecules, as well as minerals on the surface of Mars. We present an instrument design that is adapted from the ChemCam instrument which is currently on the Mars Science Lander Rover Curiosity and thus most of the primary components are currently flight qualified for Mars surface operations, significantly reducing development costs. The major change compared to ChemCam is the frequency multipliers of the 1064 nm laser to wavelengths suitable for fluorescence excitation (266 nm, 355 nm, and 532 nm). We present fluorescence spectrum for a variety of organics and minerals relevant to the surface of Mars. Preliminary results show minerals already known on Mars, such as perchlorate, fluoresce strongest when excited by 355 nm. Also we demonstrate that polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, such as those present in Martian meteorites, are highly fluorescent at wavelengths in the ultraviolet (266 nm, 355 nm), but not as much in the visible (532 nm). We conclude that fluorescence can be an important method for Mars applications and standoff detection of organics and minerals. The instrument approach described in this paper builds on existing hardware and offers high scientific return for minimal cost for future missions.
PMCID: PMC4107600  PMID: 25057291
9.  The Organic Composition of Carbonaceous Meteorites: The Evolutionary Story Ahead of Biochemistry 
Carbon-containing meteorites provide a natural sample of the extraterrestrial organic chemistry that occurred in the solar system ahead of life's origin on the Earth. Analyses of 40 years have shown the organic content of these meteorites to be materials as diverse as kerogen-like macromolecules and simpler soluble compounds such as amino acids and polyols. Many meteoritic molecules have identical counterpart in the biosphere and, in a primitive group of meteorites, represent the majority of their carbon. Most of the compounds in meteorites have isotopic compositions that date their formation to presolar environments and reveal a long and active cosmochemical evolution of the biogenic elements. Whether this evolution resumed on the Earth to foster biogenesis after exogenous delivery of meteoritic and cometary materials is not known, yet, the selective abundance of biomolecule precursors evident in some cosmic environments and the unique L-asymmetry of some meteoritic amino acids are suggestive of their possible contribution to terrestrial molecular evolution.
Meteorites undoubtedly showered the early Earth with various organic molecules, including amino acids with excesses of the l-form. Their delivery might have aided molecular evolution and the choice of the enantiomers found in living systems.
PMCID: PMC2829962  PMID: 20300213
10.  Biota and Biomolecules in Extreme Environments on Earth: Implications for Life Detection on Mars 
Life  2014;4(4):535-565.
The three main requirements for life as we know it are the presence of organic compounds, liquid water, and free energy. Several groups of organic compounds (e.g., amino acids, nucleobases, lipids) occur in all life forms on Earth and are used as diagnostic molecules, i.e., biomarkers, for the characterization of extant or extinct life. Due to their indispensability for life on Earth, these biomarkers are also prime targets in the search for life on Mars. Biomarkers degrade over time; in situ environmental conditions influence the preservation of those molecules. Nonetheless, upon shielding (e.g., by mineral surfaces), particular biomarkers can persist for billions of years, making them of vital importance in answering questions about the origins and limits of life on early Earth and Mars. The search for organic material and biosignatures on Mars is particularly challenging due to the hostile environment and its effect on organic compounds near the surface. In support of life detection on Mars, it is crucial to investigate analogue environments on Earth that resemble best past and present Mars conditions. Terrestrial extreme environments offer a rich source of information allowing us to determine how extreme conditions affect life and molecules associated with it. Extremophilic organisms have adapted to the most stunning conditions on Earth in environments with often unique geological and chemical features. One challenge in detecting biomarkers is to optimize extraction, since organic molecules can be low in abundance and can strongly adsorb to mineral surfaces. Methods and analytical tools in the field of life science are continuously improving. Amplification methods are very useful for the detection of low concentrations of genomic material but most other organic molecules are not prone to amplification methods. Therefore, a great deal depends on the extraction efficiency. The questions “what to look for”, “where to look”, and “how to look for it” require more of our attention to ensure the success of future life detection missions on Mars.
PMCID: PMC4284457  PMID: 25370528
biomarkers; Mars; minerals; adsorption; extreme environments; life detection; extraction techniques; origin of life
11.  Resistance of Bacterial Endospores to Outer Space for Planetary Protection Purposes—Experiment PROTECT of the EXPOSE-E Mission 
Astrobiology  2012;12(5):445-456.
Spore-forming bacteria are of particular concern in the context of planetary protection because their tough endospores may withstand certain sterilization procedures as well as the harsh environments of outer space or planetary surfaces. To test their hardiness on a hypothetical mission to Mars, spores of Bacillus subtilis 168 and Bacillus pumilus SAFR-032 were exposed for 1.5 years to selected parameters of space in the experiment PROTECT during the EXPOSE-E mission on board the International Space Station. Mounted as dry layers on spacecraft-qualified aluminum coupons, the “trip to Mars” spores experienced space vacuum, cosmic and extraterrestrial solar radiation, and temperature fluctuations, whereas the “stay on Mars” spores were subjected to a simulated martian environment that included atmospheric pressure and composition, and UV and cosmic radiation. The survival of spores from both assays was determined after retrieval. It was clearly shown that solar extraterrestrial UV radiation (λ≥110 nm) as well as the martian UV spectrum (λ≥200 nm) was the most deleterious factor applied; in some samples only a few survivors were recovered from spores exposed in monolayers. Spores in multilayers survived better by several orders of magnitude. All other environmental parameters encountered by the “trip to Mars” or “stay on Mars” spores did little harm to the spores, which showed about 50% survival or more. The data demonstrate the high chance of survival of spores on a Mars mission, if protected against solar irradiation. These results will have implications for planetary protection considerations. Key Words: Planetary protection—Bacterial spores—Space experiment—Simulated Mars mission. Astrobiology 12, 445–456.
PMCID: PMC3371261  PMID: 22680691
12.  Potassium ferrate [Fe(VI)] does not mediate self-sterilization of a surrogate mars soil 
BMC Microbiology  2003;3:4.
Martian soil is thought to be enriched with strong oxidants such as peroxides and/or iron in high oxidation states that might destroy biological materials. There is also a high flux of ultraviolet radiation at the surface of Mars. Thus, Mars may be inhospitable to life as we know it on Earth. We examined the hypothesis that if the soil of Mars contains ferrates [Fe(VI)], the strongest of the proposed oxidizing species, and also is exposed to high fluxes of UV radiation, it will be self-sterilizing.
Under ambient conditions (25°C, oxygen and water present) K2FeO4 mixed into sand mineralized some reactive organic molecules to CO2, while less reactive compounds were not degraded. Dried endospores of Bacillus subtilis incubated in a Mars surrogate soil comprised of dry silica sand containing 20% by weight K2FeO4 and under conditions similar to those now on Mars (extreme desiccation, cold, and a CO2-dominated atmosphere) were resistant to killing by the ferrate-enriched sand. Similar results were observed with permanganate. Spores in oxidant-enriched sand exposed to high fluxes of UV light were protected from the sporocidal activity of the radiation below about 5 mm depths.
Based on our data and previously published descriptions of ancient but dormant life forms on Earth, we suggest that if entities resembling bacterial endospores were produced at some point by life forms on Mars, they might still be present and viable, given appropriate germination conditions. Endospores delivered to Mars on spacecraft would possibly survive and potentially compromise life detection experiments.
PMCID: PMC153549  PMID: 12694634
13.  Observations of nitrogen isotope fractionation in deeply embedded protostars⋆ 
The terrestrial planets, comets, and meteorites are significantly enriched in 15N compared to the Sun and Jupiter. While the solar and jovian nitrogen isotope ratio is believed to represent the composition of the protosolar nebula, a still unidentified process has caused 15N-enrichment in the solids. Several mechanisms have been proposed to explain the variations, including chemical fractionation. However, observational results that constrain the fractionation models are scarce. While there is evidence of 15N-enrichment in prestellar cores, it is unclear how the signature evolves into the protostellar phases.
The aim of this study is to measure the 14N/15N ratio around three nearby, embedded low- to intermediate-mass protostars.
Isotopologues of HCN and HNC were used to probe the 14N/15N ratio. A selection of J = 3–2 and 4–3 transitions of H13CN, HC15N, HN13C, and H15NC was observed with the Atacama Pathfinder EXperiment telescope (APEX). The 14N/15N ratios were derived from the integrated intensities assuming a standard 12C/13C ratio. The assumption of optically thin emission was verified using radiative transfer modeling and hyperfine structure fitting.
Two sources, IRAS 16293A and R CrA IRS7B, show 15N-enrichment by a factor of ~1.5–2.5 in both HCN and HNC with respect to the solar composition. IRAS 16293A falls in the range of typical prestellar core values. Solar composition cannot be excluded for the third source, OMC-3 MMS6. Furthermore, there are indications of a trend toward increasing 14N/15N ratios with increasing outer envelope temperature.
The enhanced 15N abundances in HCN and HNC found in two Class 0 sources (14N/15N ~ 160–290) and the tentative trend toward a temperature-dependent 14N/15N ratio are consistent with the chemical fractionation scenario, but 14N/15N ratios from additional tracers are indispensable for testing the models. Spatially resolved observations are needed to distinguish between chemical fractionation and isotope-selective photochemistry.
PMCID: PMC4326685
astrochemistry - ISM; abundances - ISM; molecules - stars; formation - stars; general
14.  Astrobiological Aspects of Mars and Human Presence: Pros and Cons 
Hippokratia  2008;12(Suppl 1):49-52.
After the realization of the International Space Station, human exploratory missions to Moon or Mars, i.e. beyond low Earth orbit, are widely considered as the next logical step of peaceful cooperation in space on a global scale. Besides the human desire to extend the window of habitability, human exploratory missions are driven by several aspects of science, technology, culture and economy. Mars is currently considered as a major target in the search for life beyond the Earth. Understanding the history of water on Mars appears to be one of the clues to the puzzle on the probability of life on Mars. On Earth microorganisms have flourished for more than 3.5 Ga and have developed strategies to cope with so-called extreme conditions (e.g., hot vents, permafrost, subsurface regions, rocks or salt crystals). Therefore, in search for life on Mars, microorganisms are the most likely candidates for a putative biota on Mars and the search for morphological or chemical signatures of life or its relics is one of the primary and most exciting goals of Mars exploration. The presence of humans on the surface of Mars will substantially increase this research potential, e.g., by supporting deep subsurface drilling and by allowing intellectual collection and sophisticated in situ analysis of samples of astrobiological interest. On the other hand, such long-duration missions beyond LEO will add a new dimension to human space flight, concerning the distance of travel, the radiation environment, the gravity levels, the duration of the mission, and the level of confinement and isolation the crew will be exposed to. This will raise the significance of several health issues, above all radiation protection, gravity related effects as well as psychological issues. Furthermore, the import of internal and external microorganisms inevitably accompanying any human mission to Mars, or brought purposely to Mars as part of a bioregenerative life support system needs careful consideration with regard to planetary protection issues. Therefore, before planning any human exploratory mission, the critical issues concerning human health and wellbeing as well as protection of Mars in its pristine condition need to be investigated.
PMCID: PMC2577400  PMID: 19048093
Mars; Human exploratory missions; Astrobiology; Search for extraterrestrial life
15.  Physical conditions on the early Earth 
The formation of the Earth as a planet was a large stochastic process in which the rapid assembly of asteroidal-to-Mars-sized bodies was followed by a more extended period of growth through collisions of these objects, facilitated by the gravitational perturbations associated with Jupiter. The Earth's inventory of water and organic molecules may have come from diverse sources, not more than 10% roughly from comets, the rest from asteroidal precursors to chondritic bodies and possibly objects near Earth's orbit for which no representative class of meteorites exists today in laboratory collections. The final assembly of the Earth included a catastrophic impact with a Mars-sized body, ejecting mantle and crustal material to form the Moon, and also devolatilizing part of the Earth. A magma ocean and steam atmosphere (possibly with silica vapour) existed briefly in this period, but terrestrial surface waters were below the critical point within 100 million years after Earth's formation, and liquid water existed continuously on the surface within a few hundred million years. Organic material delivered by comets and asteroids would have survived, in part, this violent early period, but frequent impacts of remaining debris probably prevented the continuous habitability of the Earth for one to several hundred million years. Planetary analogues to or records of this early time when life began include Io (heat flow), Titan (organic chemistry) and Venus (remnant early granites).
PMCID: PMC1664683  PMID: 17008213
Hadean Earth; Earth, origin; impacts; planetology; Archean Earth
16.  Effects of Simulated Mars Conditions on the Survival and Growth of Escherichia coli and Serratia liquefaciens▿  
Escherichia coli and Serratia liquefaciens, two bacterial spacecraft contaminants known to replicate under low atmospheric pressures of 2.5 kPa, were tested for growth and survival under simulated Mars conditions. Environmental stresses of high salinity, low temperature, and low pressure were screened alone and in combination for effects on bacterial survival and replication, and then cells were tested in Mars analog soils under simulated Mars conditions. Survival and replication of E. coli and S. liquefaciens cells in liquid medium were evaluated for 7 days under low temperatures (5, 10, 20, or 30°C) with increasing concentrations (0, 5, 10, or 20%) of three salts (MgCl2, MgSO4, NaCl) reported to be present on the surface of Mars. Moderate to high growth rates were observed for E. coli and S. liquefaciens at 30 or 20°C and in solutions with 0 or 5% salts. In contrast, cell densities of both species generally did not increase above initial inoculum levels under the highest salt concentrations (10 and 20%) and the four temperatures tested, with the exception that moderately higher cell densities were observed for both species at 10% MgSO4 maintained at 20 or 30°C. Growth rates of E. coli and S. liquefaciens in low salt concentrations were robust under all pressures (2.5, 10, or 101.3 kPa), exhibiting a general increase of up to 2.5 orders of magnitude above the initial inoculum levels of the assays. Vegetative E. coli cells were maintained in a Mars analog soil for 7 days under simulated Mars conditions that included temperatures between 20 and −50°C for a day/night diurnal period, UVC irradiation (200 to 280 nm) at 3.6 W m−2 for daytime operations (8 h), pressures held at a constant 0.71 kPa, and a gas composition that included the top five gases found in the martian atmosphere. Cell densities of E. coli failed to increase under simulated Mars conditions, and survival was reduced 1 to 2 orders of magnitude by the interactive effects of desiccation, UV irradiation, high salinity, and low pressure (in decreasing order of importance). Results suggest that E. coli may be able to survive, but not grow, in surficial soils on Mars.
PMCID: PMC2849189  PMID: 20154104
17.  Evidence for nucleosynthetic enrichment of the protosolar molecular cloud core by multiple supernova events 
The presence of isotope heterogeneity of nucleosynthetic origin amongst meteorites and their components provides a record of the diverse stars that contributed matter to the protosolar molecular cloud core. Understanding how and when the solar system’s nucleosynthetic heterogeneity was established and preserved within the solar protoplanetary disk is critical for unraveling the earliest formative stages of the solar system. Here, we report calcium and magnesium isotope measurements of primitive and differentiated meteorites as well as various types of refractory inclusions, including refractory inclusions (CAIs) formed with the canonical 26Al/27Al of ~5 × 10−5 (26Al decays to 26Mg with a half-life of ~0.73 Ma) and CAIs that show fractionated and unidentified nuclear effects (FUN-CAIs) to understand the origin of the solar system’s nucleosynthetic heterogeneity. Bulk analyses of primitive and differentiated meteorites along with canonical and FUN-CAIs define correlated, mass-independent variations in 43Ca, 46Ca and 48Ca. Moreover, sequential dissolution experiments of the Ivuna carbonaceous chondrite aimed at identifying the nature and number of presolar carriers of isotope anomalies within primitive meteorites have detected the presence of multiple carriers of the short-lived 26Al nuclide as well as carriers of anomalous and uncorrelated 43Ca, 46Ca and 48Ca compositions, which requires input from multiple and recent supernovae sources. We infer that the solar system’s correlated nucleosynthetic variability reflects unmixing of old, galactically-inherited homogeneous dust from a new, supernovae-derived dust component formed shortly prior to or during the evolution of the giant molecular cloud parental to the protosolar molecular cloud core. This implies that similarly to 43Ca, 46Ca and 48Ca, the short-lived 26Al nuclide was heterogeneously distributed in the inner solar system at the time of CAI formation.
PMCID: PMC4326683
18.  Venus-Earth-Mars: Comparative Climatology and the Search for Life in the Solar System 
Life : Open Access Journal  2012;2(3):255-273.
Both Venus and Mars have captured the human imagination during the twentieth century as possible abodes of life. Venus had long enchanted humans—all the more so after astronomers realized it was shrouded in a mysterious cloak of clouds permanently hiding the surface from view. It was also the closest planet to Earth, with nearly the same size and surface gravity. These attributes brought myriad speculations about the nature of Venus, its climate, and the possibility of life existing there in some form. Mars also harbored interest as a place where life had or might still exist. Seasonal changes on Mars were interpreted as due to the possible spread and retreat of ice caps and lichen-like vegetation. A core element of this belief rested with the climatology of these two planets, as observed by astronomers, but these ideas were significantly altered, if not dashed during the space age. Missions to Venus and Mars revealed strikingly different worlds. The high temperatures and pressures found on Venus supported a “runaway greenhouse theory,” and Mars harbored an apparently lifeless landscape similar to the surface of the Moon. While hopes for Venus as an abode of life ended, the search for evidence of past life on Mars, possibly microbial, remains a central theme in space exploration. This survey explores the evolution of thinking about the climates of Venus and Mars as life-support systems, in comparison to Earth.
PMCID: PMC4187128  PMID: 25371106
Venus; Mars; Earth; space exploration; astrobiology; Percival Lowell; NASA; Carl Sagan; Percival Lowell; James C. Fletcher
19.  Investigating the Effects of Simulated Martian Ultraviolet Radiation on Halococcus dombrowskii and Other Extremely Halophilic Archaebacteria 
Astrobiology  2009;9(1):104-112.
The isolation of viable extremely halophilic archaea from 250-million-year-old rock salt suggests the possibility of their long-term survival under desiccation. Since halite has been found on Mars and in meteorites, haloarchaeal survival of martian surface conditions is being explored. Halococcus dombrowskii H4 DSM 14522T was exposed to UV doses over a wavelength range of 200–400 nm to simulate martian UV flux. Cells embedded in a thin layer of laboratory-grown halite were found to accumulate preferentially within fluid inclusions. Survival was assessed by staining with the LIVE/DEAD kit dyes, determining colony-forming units, and using growth tests. Halite-embedded cells showed no loss of viability after exposure to about 21 kJ/m2, and they resumed growth in liquid medium with lag phases of 12 days or more after exposure up to 148 kJ/m2. The estimated D37 (dose of 37 % survival) for Hcc. dombrowskii was ≥ 400 kJ/m2. However, exposure of cells to UV flux while in liquid culture reduced D37 by 2 orders of magnitude (to about 1 kJ/m2); similar results were obtained with Halobacterium salinarum NRC-1 and Haloarcula japonica. The absorption of incoming light of shorter wavelength by color centers resulting from defects in the halite crystal structure likely contributed to these results. Under natural conditions, haloarchaeal cells become embedded in salt upon evaporation; therefore, dispersal of potential microscopic life within small crystals, perhaps in dust, on the surface of Mars could resist damage by UV radiation.
PMCID: PMC3182532  PMID: 19215203
Halococcus dombrowskii; Simulated martian UV radiation; LIVE/DEAD staining; Halite fluid inclusions; UV transmittance and reflectance; Desiccation
20.  Seeding Life on the Moons of the Outer Planets via Lithopanspermia 
Astrobiology  2013;13(12):1155-1165.
Material from the surface of a planet can be ejected into space by a large impact and could carry primitive life-forms with it. We performed n-body simulations of such ejecta to determine where in the Solar System rock from Earth and Mars may end up. We found that, in addition to frequent transfer of material among the terrestrial planets, transfer of material from Earth and Mars to the moons of Jupiter and Saturn is also possible, but rare. We expect that such transfers were most likely to occur during the Late Heavy Bombardment or during the ensuing 1–2 billion years. At this time, the icy moons were warmer and likely had little or no ice shell to prevent meteorites from reaching their liquid interiors. We also note significant rates of re-impact in the first million years after ejection. This could re-seed life on a planet after partial or complete sterilization by a large impact, which would aid the survival of early life during the Late Heavy Bombardment. Key Words: Panspermia—Impact—Meteorites—Titan—Europa. Astrobiology 13, 1155–1165.
PMCID: PMC3870607  PMID: 24341459
21.  A Microbial Oasis in the Hypersaline Atacama Subsurface Discovered by a Life Detector Chip: Implications for the Search for Life on Mars 
Astrobiology  2011;11(10):969-996.
The Atacama Desert has long been considered a good Mars analogue for testing instrumentation for planetary exploration, but very few data (if any) have been reported about the geomicrobiology of its salt-rich subsurface. We performed a Mars analogue drilling campaign next to the Salar Grande (Atacama, Chile) in July 2009, and several cores and powder samples from up to 5 m deep were analyzed in situ with LDChip300 (a Life Detector Chip containing 300 antibodies). Here, we show the discovery of a hypersaline subsurface microbial habitat associated with halite-, nitrate-, and perchlorate-containing salts at 2 m deep. LDChip300 detected bacteria, archaea, and other biological material (DNA, exopolysaccharides, some peptides) from the analysis of less than 0.5 g of ground core sample. The results were supported by oligonucleotide microarray hybridization in the field and finally confirmed by molecular phylogenetic analysis and direct visualization of microbial cells bound to halite crystals in the laboratory. Geochemical analyses revealed a habitat with abundant hygroscopic salts like halite (up to 260 g kg−1) and perchlorate (41.13 μg g−1 maximum), which allow deliquescence events at low relative humidity. Thin liquid water films would permit microbes to proliferate by using detected organic acids like acetate (19.14 μg g−1) or formate (76.06 μg g−1) as electron donors, and sulfate (15875 μg g−1), nitrate (13490 μg g−1), or perchlorate as acceptors. Our results correlate with the discovery of similar hygroscopic salts and possible deliquescence processes on Mars, and open new search strategies for subsurface martian biota. The performance demonstrated by our LDChip300 validates this technology for planetary exploration, particularly for the search for life on Mars. Key Words: Atacama Desert—Life detection—Biosensor—Biopolymers—In situ measurement. Astrobiology 11, 969–996.
PMCID: PMC3242637  PMID: 22149750
22.  Stable platinum isotope measurements in presolar nanodiamonds by TEAMS 
Nanodiamonds are stardust grains commonly found in primitive meteorites. They survived the formation of the solar system and kept their own individuality. Measurements of trace-element isotopic signatures in these grains will help understanding heavy element nucleosynthesis in massive stars and dust formation from their ejecta. We have continued previous attempts to search for stable Pt isotope anomalies in nanodiamonds via trace element accelerator mass spectrometry (TEAMS). The installation of a new injector beam line at the VERA facility allowed studying low traces of stable elements in different materials. Moreover, recent experiments showed that VERA provides the required measurement precision together with a low Pt machine background. Here, we observed for the first time an indication for enhancements of 198Pt/195Pt isotope ratios in two diamond residues prepared by different chemical separation techniques from the Allende meteorite. Variations in other isotopic ratios were within analytical uncertainty, and no anomaly was identified in a third diamond fraction.
PMCID: PMC3617595  PMID: 23565017
TEAMS; Trace elements; Pt; Super novae; Presolar grains; Nanodiamonds
23.  Mud Volcanoes of Trinidad as Astrobiological Analogs for Martian Environments 
Life  2014;4(4):566-585.
Eleven onshore mud volcanoes in the southern region of Trinidad have been studied as analog habitats for possible microbial life on Mars. The profiles of the 11 mud volcanoes are presented in terms of their physical, chemical, mineralogical, and soil properties. The mud volcanoes sampled all emitted methane gas consistently at 3% volume. The average pH for the mud volcanic soil was 7.98. The average Cation Exchange Capacity (CEC) was found to be 2.16 kg/mol, and the average Percentage Water Content was 34.5%. Samples from three of the volcanoes, (i) Digity; (ii) Piparo and (iii) Devil’s Woodyard were used to culture bacterial colonies under anaerobic conditions indicating possible presence of methanogenic microorganisms. The Trinidad mud volcanoes can serve as analogs for the Martian environment due to similar geological features found extensively on Mars in Acidalia Planitia and the Arabia Terra region.
PMCID: PMC4284458  PMID: 25370529
mud volcanoes; Trinidad; chemical profiling; microbial life; analog; Mars
24.  Boron Enrichment in Martian Clay 
PLoS ONE  2013;8(6):e64624.
We have detected a concentration of boron in martian clay far in excess of that in any previously reported extra-terrestrial object. This enrichment indicates that the chemistry necessary for the formation of ribose, a key component of RNA, could have existed on Mars since the formation of early clay deposits, contemporary to the emergence of life on Earth. Given the greater similarity of Earth and Mars early in their geological history, and the extensive disruption of Earth's earliest mineralogy by plate tectonics, we suggest that the conditions for prebiotic ribose synthesis may be better understood by further Mars exploration.
PMCID: PMC3675118  PMID: 23762242
25.  Modern Subsurface Bacteria in Pristine 2.7 Ga-Old Fossil Stromatolite Drillcore Samples from the Fortescue Group, Western Australia 
PLoS ONE  2009;4(4):e5298.
Several abiotic processes leading to the formation of life-like signatures or later contamination with actual biogenic traces can blur the interpretation of the earliest fossil record. In recent years, a large body of evidence showing the occurrence of diverse and active microbial communities in the terrestrial subsurface has accumulated. Considering the time elapsed since Archaean sedimentation, the contribution of subsurface microbial communities postdating the rock formation to the fossil biomarker pool and other biogenic remains in Archaean rocks may be far from negligible.
Methodology/Principal Findings
In order to evaluate the degree of potential contamination of Archean rocks by modern microorganisms, we looked for the presence of living indigenous bacteria in fresh diamond drillcores through 2,724 Myr-old stromatolites (Tumbiana Formation, Fortescue Group, Western Australia) using molecular methods based on the amplification of small subunit ribosomal RNA genes (SSU rDNAs). We analyzed drillcore samples from 4.3 m and 66.2 m depth, showing signs of meteoritic alteration, and also from deeper “fresh” samples showing no apparent evidence for late stage alteration (68 m, 78.8 m, and 99.3 m). We also analyzed control samples from drilling and sawing fluids and a series of laboratory controls to establish a list of potential contaminants introduced during sample manipulation and PCR experiments. We identified in this way the presence of indigenous bacteria belonging to Firmicutes, Actinobacteria, and Alpha-, Beta-, and Gammaproteobacteria in aseptically-sawed inner parts of drillcores down to at least 78.8 m depth.
The presence of modern bacterial communities in subsurface fossil stromatolite layers opens the possibility that a continuous microbial colonization had existed in the past and contributed to the accumulation of biogenic traces over geological timescales. This finding casts shadow on bulk analyses of early life remains and makes claims for morphological, chemical, isotopic, and biomarker traces syngenetic with the rock unreliable in the absence of detailed contextual analyses at microscale.
PMCID: PMC2671143  PMID: 19396360

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