Biosignature Analysis of Mars Soil Analogs from the Atacama Desert: Challenges and Implications for Future Missions to Mars

Joost W. Aerts, Andreas Riedo, Daniel J. Melton, Simone Martini, Jessica Flahaut, Uwe J. Meierhenrich, Cornelia Meinert, Iuliia Myrgorodska, Robert Lindner, Pascale Ehrenfreund

Research output: Contribution to JournalArticleAcademicpeer-review

Abstract

The detection of biosignatures on Mars is of outstanding interest in the current field of astrobiology and drives various fields of research, ranging from new sample collection strategies to the development of more sensitive detection techniques. Detailed analysis of the organic content in Mars analog materials collected from extreme environments on Earth improves the current understanding of biosignature preservation and detection under conditions similar to those of Mars. In this article, we examined the biological fingerprint of several locations in the Atacama Desert (Chile), which include different wet and dry, and intermediate to high elevation salt flats (also named salars). Liquid chromatography and multidimensional gas chromatography mass spectrometry measurement techniques were used for the detection and analysis of amino acids extracted from the salt crusts and sediments by using sophisticated extraction procedures. Illumina 16S amplicon sequencing was used for the identification of microbial communities associated with the different sample locations. Although amino acid load and organic carbon and nitrogen quantities were generally low, it was found that most of the samples harbored complex and versatile microbial communities, which were dominated by (extremely) halophilic microorganisms (most notably by species of the Archaeal family Halobacteriaceae). The dominance of salts (i.e., halites and sulfates) in the investigated samples leaves its mark on the composition of the microbial communities but does not appear to hinder the potential of life to flourish since it can clearly adapt to the higher concentrations. Although the Atacama Desert is one of the driest and harshest environments on Earth, it is shown that there are still sub-locations where life is able to maintain a foothold, and, as such, salt flats could be considered as interesting targets for future life exploration missions on Mars.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)766-784
Number of pages19
JournalAstrobiology
Volume20
Issue number6
Early online date10 Jun 2020
DOIs
Publication statusPublished - Jun 2020

Keywords

  • Amino acids
  • Atacama Desert
  • Biosignatures
  • Mars
  • Microbial communities
  • Organic carbon

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