Simulating Mars Drilling Mission for Searching for Life: Ground-Truthing Lipids and Other Complex Microbial Biomarkers in the Iron-Sulfur Rich Río Tinto Analog

Sánchez García, L., Fernández Martínez, M. A., Moreno Paz, M., Carrizo, D., García Villadangos, M., Manchado, J. M., Stoker, C. R., Glass, B., Parro, V. 2020. Simulating Mars Drilling Mission for Searching for Life: Ground-Truthing Lipids and Other Complex Microbial Biomarkers in the Iron-Sulfur Rich Río Tinto Analog. Astrobiology 20, 9,

Sulfate and iron oxide deposits in Río Tinto (Southwestern Spain) are a terrestrial analog of early martian hematite-rich regions. Understanding the distribution and drivers of microbial life in iron-rich environments can give critical clues on how to search for biosignatures on Mars. We simulated a robotic drilling mission searching for signs of life in the martian subsurface, by using a 1m-class planetary prototype drill mounted on a full-scale mockup of NASA’s Phoenix and InSight lander platforms. We demonstrated fully automated and aseptic drilling on iron and sulfur rich sediments at the Río Tinto riverbanks, and sample transfer and delivery to sterile containers and analytical instruments. As a ground-truth study, samples were analyzed in the field with the life detector chip immunoassay for searching microbial markers, and then in the laboratory with X-ray diffraction to determine mineralogy, gas chromatography/mass spectrometry for lipid composition, isotope-ratio mass spectrometry for isotopic ratios, and 16S/18S rRNA genes sequencing for biodiversity. A ubiquitous presence of microbial biomarkers distributed along the 1m-depth subsurface was influenced by the local mineralogy and geochemistry. The spatial heterogeneity of abiotic variables at local scale highlights the importance of considering drill replicates in future martian drilling missions. The multi-analytical approach provided proof of concept that molecular biomarkers varying in compositional nature, preservation potential, and taxonomic specificity can be recovered from shallow drilling on iron-rich Mars analogues by using an automated life-detection lander prototype, such as the one proposed for NASA’s IceBreaker mission proposal.

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