Biosignatures & Paleobiology

Organic Biosignature Degradation in Hydrothermal and Serpentinizing Environments: Implications for Life Detection on Icy Moons and Mars

By Keith Cowing
Press Release
August 2, 2023
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Organic Biosignature Degradation in Hydrothermal and Serpentinizing Environments: Implications for Life Detection on Icy Moons and Mars
Mineral-laden water emerging from a hydrothermal vent on the Niua underwater volcano in the Lau Basin, southwest Pacific Ocean. As the water cools, minerals precipitate to form tower-like “chimneys.” Image taken during 2016 cruise “Virtual Vents.” USGS

Evidence of liquid water is a primary indicator of habitability on the icy moons in our outer solar system as well as on terrestrial planets such as Mars.

If liquid water-containing environments host life, some of its organic remains can be fossilized and preserved as organic biosignatures. However, inorganic materials may also be present and water-assisted organic-inorganic reactions can transform the organic architecture of biological remains. Our understanding of the fate of these organic remains can be assisted by experimental simulations that monitor the chemical changes that occur in microbial organic matter due to the presence of water and minerals.

We performed hydrothermal experiments at temperatures between 100°C and 300°C involving lipid-rich microbes and natural serpentinite mineral mixtures generated by the subaqueous hydrothermal alteration of ultramafic rock. The products reveal what the signals of life may look like when subjected to water-organic-inorganic reactions. Straight- and branched-chain lipids in unaltered samples are joined by cyclization and aromatization products in hydrothermally altered samples.

Hydrothermal reactions produce distinct products that are not present in the starting materials, including small, single-ring, heteroatomic, and aromatic compounds such as indoles and phenols. Hydrothermal reactions in the presence of serpentinite minerals lead to significant reduction of these organic structures and their replacement by diketopiperazines (DKPs) and dihydropyrazines (DHPs), which may be compounds that are distinct to organic-inorganic reactions. Given that the precursors of DKPs and DHPs are normally lost during early diagenesis, the presence of these compounds can be an indicator of coexisting recent life and hydrothermal processing in the presence of minerals.

However, laboratory experiments reveal that the formation and preservation of these compounds can only occur within a distinct temperature window. Our findings are relevant to life detection missions that aim to access hydrothermal and serpentinizing environments in the subsurfaces of icy moons and Mars.

Jonathan S W Tan 1, Tara L Salter 1, Jonathan S Watson 1, J Hunter Waite 2, Mark A Sephton 1
Astrobiology. 2023 Jul 28. doi: 10.1089/ast.2022.0144.

Explorers Club Fellow, ex-NASA Space Station Payload manager/space biologist, Away Teams, Journalist, Lapsed climber, Synaesthete, Na’Vi-Jedi-Freman-Buddhist-mix, ASL, Devon Island and Everest Base Camp veteran, (he/him) 🖖🏻