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Microbiological activities can be detected in various extreme environments on Earth, which suggest that extraterrestrial environments, such as on Mars, could host life. There have been proposed a number of biomarkers to detect extant life mostly based on specific molecules. Because terrestrial organisms have catalytic proteins (enzymes), enzymatic activity may also be a good indicator to evaluate biological activities in extreme environments. Phosphatases are essential for all terrestrial organisms because phosphate esters are ubiquitously used in genetic molecules (DNA/RNA) and membranes. In this study, we evaluated microbial activity in soils of the Atacama Desert, Chile, by analysing several biomarkers, including phosphatase activity. Phosphatases extracted with Tris buffer were assayed fluorometrically using 4-methylumbelliferyl phosphate as a substrate. The horizontal distribution of phosphatase activity and other parameters in soils from the Atacama Desert showed that phosphatase activity was positively correlated with amino acid concentration and colony-forming units and negatively correlated with precipitation amount. We found consistent that biochemical indicators including phosphatase significantly decreased in the extreme hyper-arid zone where rainfall of <25 mm year−1. The results were compared with phosphatase activities detected in extreme environments, such as submarine hydrothermal systems and Antarctic soils, as well as soils from ordinary environments. Overall, our results suggested that phosphatase activity could be a good indicator for evaluating biological activities in extreme environments.
We report 3 years of data from one meteorological and three smaller stations in University Valley, a high-elevation (1677 m) site in the Dry Valleys of Antarctica with extensive dry permafrost. Mean air temperature was -23.4°C. Summer air temperatures were virtually always < 0°C and were consistent with the altitude lapse rate and empirical relationships between summer temperature, distance from the coast and elevation. The measured frost point (-22.5°C) at the 42 cm deep ice table is equal to the surface frost point and above the atmospheric frost point (-29.6°C), providing direct evidence that surface conditions control ground ice depth. Observed peak surface soil temperatures reach 6°C for ice-cemented ground > 15 cm deep but stay < 0°C when it is shallower. We develop an energy balance model tuned to this rocky and dry environment. We find that differences in peak soil surface temperatures are primarily due to the higher thermal diffusivity of ice-cemented ground compared to dry soil. Sensitivity studies show that expected natural variability is insufficient for melt to form and significant excursions from current conditions are required. The site's ice table meets the criteria for a Special Region on Mars, with 30% of the year > -18°C and water activity > 0.6.
We report infrared reflectance and ultraviolet fluorescence spectra of the surfaces and cleaved side of Beacon Sandstone from Antarctica that harbours a cryptoendolithic microbial community - a photosynthesis-based consortium of algae, lichen and bacteria present a few millimetres below the surface. Chlorophyll absorptions were present in the reflectance spectra of the exposed interior but not on the top or bottom surfaces and their band depths changed < 4% between measurements taken 19 years apart, indicating the stability of the microorganisms when the sample is kept dry. The presence of subsurface organic layers was detected in reflectance at 3.41 μm on the sample's surface. Fluorescence spectra of the cleaved side showed the blue fluorescence peaks expected from chlorophyll but no 0.65–0.80 μm peaks seen in fluorescence measurements of green vegetation. A weak fluorescence signal was detectable at the surface of the sample, presumably due to some light leaking into the subsurface through pores or cracks in the goethite coating the sample's surface. Theoretically, this weak fluorescence signal could possibly be observed in rock surfaces broken by erosion or meteor impacts on Mars. Sandstone outcrops have been reported on Mars and detection of organic layers in sandstones there would be of interest.
Sediments that accumulate in high-latitude lakes serve as valuable environmental archives of changing conditions in a region currently undergoing rapid change. A previously unexplored sedimentary sequence reaching back 16,000 years from Lakes Peters and Schrader (Neruokpuk Lakes) in the northeastern Brooks Range (69°N), Alaska, shows distinct changes in accumulation rates and biophysical properties including bulk density (BD), organic matter (OM) content, and grain-size distribution at five widely distributed core sites. The oldest sediments contain little OM and accumulated rapidly as glaciers retreated around 15 ka. OM peaked between 12 and 10 ka along with Northern Hemisphere summer insolation. BD increased and OM decreased until around 5 ka, possibly reflecting a decrease in river-transported terrestrial OM. From 5–2 ka, OM consistently increased, suggesting a rise in river discharge, or a rise in summer temperatures, which led to higher productivity, or both. After 2 ka, sediments increased in BD and decreased in OM, suggesting glacier growth. Evidence for glacier expansion late during the Little Ice Age is weak, but increased sedimentation rates may reflect glacier retreat during the last century. This study provides a framework for future paleoenvironmental research of a rare archive in a relatively pristine Arctic setting.
Dry permafrost - ground with temperature always below 0°C and containing negligible ice - overlying ice-cemented ground has been reported in the Dry Valleys of Antarctica and on Mars. Here we report on a new site (79°49.213'S, 83°18.860'W, 718 m elevation) located on the side of Mount Dolence in Ellsworth Land, Antarctica. Year-round temperature and humidity measurements indicate that dry permafrost is present between depths of 13.5 and 49.0 cm - the location of ice-cemented ground. The mean annual frost point of the ice-cemented ground is -17.0 ± 0.2°C and the mean annual frost point of the atmosphere is -22.7 ± 1°C. The corresponding mean annual temperatures are -19.2°C and -20.3°C. Neither the temperature of the ice-cemented ground nor the air rise above freezing. Both the dry permafrost and the ice table may be habitable. In the dry soil at 3 cm depth there are 80 hours in the summer when temperature exceeds -5°C and water activity exceeds 0.8. At the ice table, temperature exceeds -10°C and water activity exceeds 0.8 for 35 hours in the year. The ice table and the dry permafrost above it would be considered a ‘Special Region’ on Mars. Further microbial investigation of this site is indicated.
Lake Untersee is one of the largest perennially ice-covered lakes in Dronning Maud Land. We investigated the energy and water mass balance of Lake Untersee to understand its state of equilibrium. The thickness of the ice cover is strongly correlated with sublimation rates; variations in sublimation rates across the ice cover are largely determined by wind-driven turbulent heat fluxes and the number of snow-covered days. Lake extent and water level have remained stable for the past 20 years, indicating that the water mass balance is in equilibrium. The lake is damned by the Anuchin Glacier and mass balance calculation suggest that subaqueous melting of terminus ice contributes 40–45% of the annual water budget; since there is no evidence of streams flowing into the lake, the lake must be connected to a groundwater system that contributes 55–60% in order to maintain the lake budget in balance. The groundwater likely flows at a rate of ~8.8 × 10−2 m3 s−1, a reasonable estimate given the range of subglacial water flux in the region. The fate of its well-sealed ice cover is likely tied to changes in wind regime, whereas changes in water budget are more closely linked to the response of surrounding glaciers to climate change.
Lake Untersee is a perennially ice-covered Antarctic lake that consists of two basins. The deepest basin, next to the Anuchin Glacier is aerobic to its maximum depth of 160 m. The shallower basin has a maximum depth of 100 m, is anoxic below 80 m, and is shielded from convective currents. The thermal profile in the anoxic basin is unusual in that the water temperature below 50 m is constant at 4°C but rises to 5°C between 70 m and 80 m depth, then drops to 3.7°C at the bottom. Field measurements were used to conduct a thermal and stability analysis of the anoxic basin. The shape of the thermal maximum implies two discrete locations of energy input, one of 0.11 W m-2 at 71 m depth and one of 0.06 W m-2 at 80 m depth. Heat from microbial activity cannot account for the required amount of energy at either depth. Instead, absorption of solar radiation due to an increase in water opacity at these depths can account for the required energy input. Hence, while microbial metabolism is not an important source of heat, biomass increases opacity in the water column resulting in greater absorption of sunlight.
We numerically model the dynamics of the Enceladus plume ice grains and define our nominal plume model as having a particle size distribution n(R) ~ R−q with q = 4 and a total particulate mass rate of 16 kg s−1. This mass rate is based on average plume brightness observed by Cassini across a range of orbital positions. The model predicts sample volumes of ~1600 µg for a 1 m2 collector on a spacecraft making flybys at 20–60 km altitudes above the Enceladus surface. We develop two scenarios to predict the concentration of amino acids in the plume based on these assumed sample volumes. We specifically consider Glycine, Serine, α-Alanine, α-Aminoisobutyric acid and Isovaline. The first ‘abiotic’ model assumes that Enceladus has the composition of a comet and finds abundances between 2 × 10−6 to 0.003 µg for dissolved free amino acids and 2 × 10−5 to 0.3 µg for particulate amino acids. The second ‘biotic’ model assumes that the water of Enceladus's ocean has the same amino acid composition as the deep ocean water on Earth. We compute the expected captured mass of amino acids such as Glycine, Serine, and α-Alanine in the ‘biotic’ model to be between 1 × 10−5 to 2 × 10−5 µg for dissolved free amino acids and dissolved combined amino acids and about 0.0002 µg for particulate amino acids. Both models consider enhancements due to bubble bursting. Expected captured mass of amino acids is calculated for a 1 m2 collector on a spacecraft making flybys with a closest approach of 20 km during mean plume activity for the given nominal particle size distribution.
The Antarctic Dry Valleys represent a unique environment where it is possible to study dry permafrost overlaying an ice-rich permafrost. In this paper, two opposing mechanisms for ice table stability in University Valley are addressed: i) diffusive recharge via thin seasonal snow deposits and ii) desiccation via salt deposits in the upper soil column. A high-resolution time-marching soil and snow model was constructed and applied to University Valley, driven by meteorological station atmospheric measurements. It was found that periodic thin surficial snow deposits (observed in University Valley) are capable of drastically slowing (if not completely eliminating) the underlying ice table ablation. The effects of NaCl, CaCl2 and perchlorate deposits were then modelled. Unlike the snow cover, however, the presence of salt in the soil surface (but no periodic snow) results in a slight increase in the ice table recession rate, due to the hygroscopic effects of salt sequestering vapour from the ice table below. Near-surface pore ice frequently forms when large amounts of salt are present in the soil due to the suppression of the saturation vapour pressure. Implications for Mars high latitudes are discussed.
Ground ice is one of the most important and dynamic geologic components of permafrost; however, few studies have investigated the distribution and origin of ground ice in the McMurdo Dry Valleys of Antarctica. In this study, ice-bearing permafrost cores were collected from 18 sites in University Valley, a small hanging glacial valley in the Quartermain Mountains. Ground ice was found to be ubiquitous in the upper 2 m of permafrost soils, with excess ice contents reaching 93%, but ground ice conditions were not homogeneous. Ground ice content was variable within polygons and along the valley floor, decreasing in the centres of polygons and increasing in the shoulders of polygons towards the mouth of the valley. Ground ice also had different origins: vapour deposition, freezing of partially evaporated snow meltwater and buried glacier ice. The variability in the distribution and origin of ground ice can be attributed to ground surface temperature and moisture conditions, which separate the valley into distinct zones. Ground ice of vapour-deposition origin was predominantly situated in perennially cryotic zones, whereas ground ice formed by the freezing of evaporated snow meltwater was predominantly found in seasonally non-cryotic zones.
Astronomical observations of Centaurs and trans-Neptunian objects (TNOs) yield two characteristic features – near-infrared (NIR) reflectance and low geometric albedo. The first feature apparently originates due to complex organic material on their surfaces, but the origin of the material contributing to low albedo is not well understood. Titan tholins synthesized to simulate aerosols in the atmosphere of Saturn's moon Titan have also been used for simulating the NIR reflectances of several Centaurs and TNOs. Here, we report novel detections of large polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, nanoscopic soot aggregates and cauliflower-like graphite within Titan tholins. We put forth a proof of concept stating the surfaces of Centaurs and TNOs may perhaps comprise of highly ‘carbonized’ complex organic material, analogous to the tholins we investigated. Such material would apparently be capable of contributing to the NIR reflectances and to the low geometric albedos simultaneously.
Based on data from low elevation lake sites, previous studies have suggested three quantitative relationships related to summer (December, January and February) air temperatures in the Dry Valleys of Antarctica: i) decrease with altitude at the dry lapse rate of 9.8°C km-1, ii) increase with distance from the coast at a rate of 0.09°C km-1, and iii) degree-days above freezing during the summer months is logarithmically proportional to the maximum summer air temperature. Here, we tested the first two of these rules at high elevation sites in Upper Wright Valley. Direct measurements confirmed that the summer lapse rate followed the dry lapse rate. For the three furthest stations, Tyrol Valley, Mount Fleming and Horseshoe Crater, the average difference between the measurements and the predicted summer monthly averages are -2.1±1.4°C, -0.5±1.0°C and -0.4±0.9°C, respectively. By contrast, at Linnaeus Terrace (54 km from the coast) the monthly average is warmer than predicted by several degrees: +4.3±1.3°C. The inland temperature gradient at these high elevation sites may result from sunlight effects rather than coastal wind as previously shown for the lower valleys. The warm conditions observed c. 50 km from the coast may reflect a zone affected by both sunlight and coastal wind.
The Proterozoic carbonate stromatolites of the Pahrump Group from the Crystal Spring formation exhibit interesting layering patterns. In continuous vertical formations, there are sections of chevron-shaped stromatolites alternating with sections of simple horizontal layering. This apparent cycle of stromatolite formation and lack of formation repeats several times over a vertical distance of at least 30 m at the locality investigated. Small representative samples from each layer were taken and analysed using X-ray diffraction (XRD), X-ray fluorescence (XRF), environmental scanning electron microscopy – energy dispersive X-ray spectrometry, and were optically analysed in thin section. Optical and spectroscopic analyses of stromatolite and of non-stromatolite samples were undertaken with the objective of determining the differences between them. Elemental analysis of samples from within each of the four stromatolite layers and the four intervening layers shows that the two types of layers are chemically and mineralogically distinct. In the layers that contain stromatolites the Ca/Si ratio is high; in layers without stromatolites the Ca/Si ratio is low. In the high Si layers, both K and Al are positively correlated with the presence and levels of Si. This, together with XRD analysis, suggested a high K-feldspar (microcline) content in the non-stromatolitic layers. This variation between these two types of rocks could be due to changes in biological growth rates in an otherwise uniform environment or variations in detrital influx and the resultant impact on biology. The current analysis does not allow us to choose between these two alternatives. A Mars rover would have adequate resolution to image these structures and instrumentation capable of conducting a similar elemental analysis.
The Mojave Desert has been long considered a suitable terrestrial analogue to Mars in many geological and astrobiological aspects. The Silver Lake region in the Mojave Desert hosts several different rock types (talc, marble, quartz, white carbonate and red-coated carbonate) colonized by hypoliths within a few kilometres. This provides an opportunity to investigate the effect of rock type on hypolithic colonization in a given environment. Transmission measurements from 300 to 800 nm showed that the transmission of blue and UVA varied between rock types. The wavelength at which the transmission fell to 1% of the transmission at 600 nm was 475 nm for white carbonate and quartz, 425 nm for red-coated carbonate and talc and 380 nm for marble. The comparative analysis of the cyanobacterial component of hypoliths under different rocks, as revealed by sequencing 16S rRNA gene clone libraries, showed no significant variation with rock type; hypoliths were dominated by phylotypes of the genus Chroococcidiopsis, although less abundant phylotypes of the genus Loriellopsis, Leptolyngbya and Scytonema occurred. The comparison of the confocal laser scanning microscopy-λ (CLSM-λ) scan analysis of the spectral emission of the photosynthetic pigments of Chroococcidiopsis in different rocks with the spectrum of isolated Chroococcidiopsis sp. 029, revealed a 10 nm red shift in the emission fingerprinting for quartz and carbonate and a 5 nm red shift for talc samples. This result reflects the versatility of Chroococcidiopsis in inhabiting dry niches with different light availability for photosynthesis.
The objective of this work was to develop a field method for the determination of labile organic carbon in hyper-arid desert soils. Industry standard methods rely on expensive analytical equipment that are not possible to take into the field, while scientific challenges require fast turn-around of large numbers of samples in order to characterize the soils throughout this region. Here we present a method utilizing acid-hydrolysis extraction of the labile fraction of organic carbon followed by potassium permanganate oxidation, which provides a quick and inexpensive approach to investigate samples in the field. Strict reagent standardization and calibration steps within this method allowed the determination of very low levels of organic carbon in hyper-arid soils, in particular, with results similar to those determined by the alternative methods of Calcination and Pyrolysis–Gas Chromatography–Mass Spectrometry. Field testing of this protocol increased the understanding of the role of organic materials in hyper-arid environments and allowed real-time, strategic decision making for planning for more detailed laboratory-based analysis.
The occurrence of dry permafrost overlying ice-rich permafrost is unique to the Antarctic Dry Valleys on Earth and to the high latitudes of Mars. The stability and distribution of this ice are poorly understood and fundamental to understanding the Antarctic climate as far back as a few million years. Polygonal patterned ground is nearly ubiquitous in these regions and is integrally linked to the history of the icy permafrost and climate. We examined the morphology of polygonal ground in Beacon Valley and the Beacon Heights region of the Antarctic Dry Valleys, and show that polygon size is correlated with ice-table depth (the boundary between dry and ice-rich permafrost). A numerical model of seasonal stress in permafrost shows that the ice-table depth is a dominant factor. Remote sensing and field observations of polygon size are therefore important tools for investigating subsurface ice. Polygons are long-lived landforms and observed characteristics indicate no major fluctuations in the ice-table depth during their development. We conclude that the Beacon Valley and Beacon Heights polygons have developed for at least 104 years to achieve their present mature-stage morphology and that the ice-table depth has been stable for a similar length of time.
The ongoing search for life on other worlds and the prospects of eventual human exploration of the Moon and Mars indicate the need for new ethical guidelines to direct our actions as we search and how we respond if we discover microbial life on other worlds. Here we review how life on other worlds presents a novel question in environmental ethics. We propose a principle of protecting and expanding the richness and diversity of life as the basis of an ethic for astrobiology research and space exploration. There are immediate implications for the operational policies governing how we conduct the search for life on Mars and how we plan for human exploration throughout the Solar System.
Perchlorate (ClO4−) is widespread in Martian soils at concentrations between 0.5 and 1%. At such concentrations, perchlorate could be an important source of oxygen, but it could also become a critical chemical hazard to astronauts. In this paper, we review the dual implications of ClO4− on Mars, and propose a biochemical approach for removal of perchlorate from Martian soil that would be energetically cheap, environmentally friendly and could be used to obtain oxygen both for human consumption and to fuel surface operations.