Cave Biosignature Suites: Microbes, Minerals, and Mars

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Earth's subsurface offers one of the best possible sites to search for microbial life and the characteristic lithologies that life leaves behind. The subterrain may be equally valuable for astrobiology. Where surface conditions are particularly hostile, like on Mars, the subsurface may offer the only habitat for extant lifeforms and access to recognizable biosignatures. We have identified numerous unequivocally biogenic macroscopic, microscopic, and chemical/geochemical cave biosignatures. However, to be especially useful for astrobiology, we are looking for suites of characteristics. Ideally, "biosignature suites" should be both macroscopically and microscopically detectable, independently verifiable by nonmorphological means, and as independent as possible of specific details of life chemistries - demanding (and sometimes conflicting) criteria. Working in fragile, legally protected environments, we developed noninvasive and minimal impact techniques for life and biosignature detection/characterization analogous to Planetary Protection Protocols. Our difficult field conditions have shared limitations common to extraterrestrial robotic and human missions. Thus, the cave/subsurface astrobiology model addresses the most important goals from both scientific and operational points of view. We present details of cave biosignature suites involving manganese and iron oxides, calcite, and sulfur minerals. Suites include morphological fossils, mineral-coated filaments, living microbial mats and preserved biofabrics, 13C and 34S values consistent with microbial metabolism, genetic data, unusual elemental abundances and ratios, and crystallographic mineral forms.


Biosignature suites, Microorganism mineral assemblages, Caves, mars, Life detection

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