Science & Technology

Identifying Microbial Markers in Martian Clay: Subsoil at Earth’s Driest Place May Signal Life on Mars

The primary Martian materials collected by the inside track on the robotic arm of NASA’s Mars rover Curiosity. Credit score: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

Earth’s most arid desert could maintain a key to discovering life on Mars.

Various microbes found in the clay-rich, shallow soil layers in Chile’s dry Atacama Desert recommend that comparable deposits under the Martian floor could include microorganisms, which might be simply discovered by future rover missions or touchdown craft.

Led by Cornell College and Spain’s Centro de Astrobiología, scientists now provide a planetary primer to figuring out microbial markers on shallow rover digs in Martian clay, in their work revealed at the moment (November 5, 2020) in Nature Scientific Experiences.

In that dry setting at Atacama, the scientists discovered layers of moist clay a couple of foot under the floor.

“The clays are inhabited by microorganisms,” mentioned corresponding writer Alberto G. Fairén, a visiting scientist in the Division of Astronomy at Cornell College. “Our discovery means that one thing comparable could have occurred billions of years in the past — or it nonetheless could also be occurring — on Mars.”

If microbes existed on Mars in the previous, their biomarkers seemingly could be preserved there, Fairén mentioned. “If microbes nonetheless exist at the moment,” he mentioned, “the most recent attainable Martian life nonetheless could also be resting there.”

Scientists from Cornell and Spain’s Centro de Astrobiología have discovered that Earth’s most arid desert – Chile’s Atacama Desert, proven above – could maintain a key to discovering microbial life on Mars.

The crimson planet will see rovers cruising throughout the floor there in the following few years. NASA’s rover Perseverance will land on Mars in February 2021; Europe’s Rosalind Franklin rover will arrive in 2023. Each of these missions will search microbial biomarkers in the clay under the planet’s floor.

“This paper helps information the search,” Fairén mentioned, “to tell the place we should always look and which devices to make use of on a seek for life.”

Within the Yungay area of the Atacama desert, the scientists discovered the clay layer, a beforehand unreported habitat for microbial life, is inhabited by at least 30 salt-loving microbial species of metabolically lively micro organism and archaea (single-cell organisms).

The researchers’ Atacama discovery reinforces the notion that early Mars could have had an analogous subsurface with protected liveable niches, notably in the course of the first billion years of its historical past.

“That’s why clays are vital,” he mentioned. “They protect natural compounds and biomarkers extraordinarily nicely and they’re considerable on Mars.”

Reference: “Inhabited subsurface moist smectites in the hyperarid core of the Atacama Desert as an analog for the seek for life on Mars” by Armando Azua-Bustos, Alberto G. Fairén, Carlos González Silva, Daniel Carrizo, Miguel Ángel Fernández-Martínez, Cristián Arenas-Fajardo, Maite Fernández-Sampedro, Carolina Gil-Lozano, Laura Sánchez-García, Carmen Ascaso, Jacek Wierzchos and Elizabeth B. Rampe, 5 November 2020, Scientific Experiences.
DOI: 10.1038/s41598-020-76302-z

The paper’s lead writer is Armando Azua-Bustos, a researcher on Fairén’s staff at the Centro de Astrobiología, Madrid.

The analysis was funded by the European Analysis Council.

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