Molecular biomarkers in the subsurface of the Salar Grande (Atacama, Chile) evaporitic deposits

Laura Sánchez-García, Christoph Aeppli, Victor Parro, David Fernández-Remolar, Miriam García-Villadangos, Guillermo Chong-Diaz, Yolanda Blanco & Daniel Carrizo. 2018. Molecular biomarkers in the subsurface of the Salar Grande (Atacama, Chile) evaporitic deposits. Biogeochemistry 140, 1, 31-52 DOI: 10.1007/s10533-018-0477-3

The Late Miocene-Pliocene aged hyperarid evaporitic system of Salar Grande is a unique, halite-rich sedimentary basin in the Cordillera de la Costa of the Central Andes (Chile) whose bio-sedimentary record is poorly understood. The persistence of hyperacidity over millions of years, the hypersalinity, and the intense UV radiation make it a terrestrial analogue to assess the potential presence of organic matter in the halite deposits found on Mars. We investigated the occurrence and distribution of biomolecules along a 100-m depth drill down to the similar to 9 Ma old detrital deposits topped by La Soledad Formation (ESF). We have identified two well-defined mineralogical and geochemical units by X-ray diffractometry (XRD) and ion chromatography: a nearly pure halite down to 40 m, and a detrital one down to 100 m depth. One-dimensional GC-MS and two-dimensional GC x GC-TOF-MS gas chromatography-mass spectrometry techniques allowed us to detect a variety of lipidic compounds (n-alkanes, n-alkanols, isoprenoids, steroids, and hopanoids), and a relative abundance of functionalized hydrocarbons (n-fatty acids or n-aldehydes), mostly in the upper halite. We also detected biopolymers and microbial markers by fluorescence sandwich-microarray immunoassays. A dominant prokaryotic origin was associated with halophile bacteria and archaea, with minor contributions of lichens, macrophytes, or higher plants. The lipidic record was also imprinted by oxic (high pristane over phytane ratios) and saline (squalane, and mono-methyl n-alkanes) signatures. The vertical abundance and distribution of biomarkers in the Salar Grande was explained by a generalized effect of xeropreservation, combined with salt encapsulation in the upper halite deposits, or with protective organics-mineral interactions in the deeper detrital unit. The results contribute to the interpretation of terrestrial bio-sedimentary records of halite deposits and their association to environmental conditions. The high potential for preservation of biosignatures at Salar Grande suggests that similar evaporitic deposits in Mars should be priority targets for searching for signs of life.

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