Trapping Martian life forms

No matter how optimistic exobiologists might be, the current approaches to discovering whether or not Mars once hosted life or, the longest shot of all, still does are almost literally hit or miss. First the various teams involved try to select a target area using remotely sensed data to see if rocks or regolith have interacted with water; generally from the presence or absence of clay minerals and /or sulfates that hydrous alteration produces on Earth. Since funding is limited the sites with such ingredients are narrowed down to the ‘best’ – in the case of NASA’s Curiosity rover to Gale Crater  where a thick sequence of sediments shows occasional signs of clays and sulfates. But a potential site must also be logistically feasible with the least risk of loss to the lander. Even then, all that can be achieved in existing and planned mission is geochemical analysis of drilled and powdered samples. Curiosity’s ambition is limited to assessing whether the conditions for life were present. Isotopic analysis of any carbon content to check for mass fractionation that may have arisen from living processes is something for a future ESA mission.

Neither approach is likely to prove the existence now or in far-off times of Martian life, though scientists hope to whet the appetite of those holding the purse strings. Only return of rock samples stands any realistic chance of giving substance to the dreams of exobiologists. But what to collect? A random soil grab or drill core is highly unlikely to provide satisfaction one way or the other. Indeed only incontrovertible remains of some kind of cellular material can slake the yearning. Terrestrial materials might provide a guide to (probably) robotic collectors. Kathleen Benison and Francis Karmanocky of West Virginia University have followed this up by examining sulfates from one of the least hospitable places on Earth; the salt flats of the high Andes of Chile (Benison, K.C. & Karmanocky, F.J. 2014. Could microorganisms be preserved in Mars gypsum? Insights from terrestrial examples. Geology, v. 42, p. 615-618).

Evaporite minerals from Andean salars precipitated from extremely acidic and highly saline lake water originating from weathering of surrounding volcanoes. Oddly few researchers have sought cellular life trapped in crystals of salt or gypsum, the two most common minerals in the high-elevation salt pans. Fluid inclusions in sedimentary halite (NaCl) crystals from as far back as the Triassic are known to contain single-celled extremophile prokaryotes and eukaryotes, but gypsum is more likely to be found on Mars. Benison and Karmanocky document a variety of cellular material from Chilean gypsum that has been trapped in the solid mineral itself or in fluid inclusions. This is the most likely means of fossilisation of Martian life forms, if they ever existed. The salar gypsum contain cells that can be cultured and thereby revived since several species can remain dormant for long periods. The authors suggest that transparent cleavage fragments of Martian gypsum could be examined at up to 2000x magnification on future Mars landers. Finding convincing cells would see dancing in exobiology labs, and what if they should move…

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