Detectability of biosignatures in a low-biomass simulation of martian sediments

Adam Stevens, Alison Mcdonald, Coen de Koning, Andreas Riedo, Louisa J Preston, Pascale Ehrenfreund, Peter Wurz, Charles Cockell

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

Abstract / Description of output

Discovery of a remnant habitable environment by the Mars Science Laboratory in the sedimentary record of Gale Crater has reinvigorated the search for evidence of martian life. In this study, we used a simulated martian mudstone material, based on data from Gale Crater, that was inoculated and cultured over several months and then dried and pressed. The simulated mudstone was analysed with a range of techniques to investigate the detectability of biosignatures. Cell counting and DNA extraction showed a diverse but low biomass microbial community that was highly dispersed. Pellets were analysed with bulk Elemental Analysis – Isotope Ratio Mass Spectrometry (EA-IRMS), high-resolution Laser-ablation Ionisation Mass Spectrometry (LIMS), Raman spectroscopy and Fourier Transform InfraRed (FTIR) spectroscopy, which are all techniques of relevance to current and future space missions. Bulk analytical techniques were unable to differentiate between inoculated samples and abiotic controls, despite total levels of organic carbon comparable with that of the martian surface. Raman spectroscopy, FTIR spectroscopy and LIMS, which are high sensitivity techniques that provide chemical information at high spatial resolution, retrieved presumptive biosignatures but these remained ambiguous and the sedimentary matrix presented challenges for all techniques. This suggests challenges for detecting definitive evidence for life, both in the simulated lacustrine environment via standard microbiological techniques and in the simulated mudstone via analytical techniques with relevance to robotic missions. Our study suggests that multiple co-incident high-sensitivity techniques that can scan the same micrometre-scale spots are required to unambiguously detect biosignatures, but the spatial coverage of these techniques needs to be high enough not to miss individual cellular-scale structures in the matrix.
Original languageEnglish
Article number9706
JournalScientific Reports
Publication statusPublished - 4 Jul 2019


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