Status Report

The Potential for Lithoautotrophic Life on Mars: Application to Shallow Interfacial Water Environments

By SpaceRef Editor
May 15, 2007
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The Potential for Lithoautotrophic Life on Mars: Application to Shallow Interfacial Water Environments

April 2007, Vol. 7, No. 2 : 342 -354

We developed a numerical model to assess the lithoautotrophic habitability of Mars based on metabolic energy, nutrients, water availability, and temperature. Available metabolic energy and nutrient sources were based on a laboratory-produced Mars-analog inorganic chemistry. For this specific reference chemistry, the most efficient lithoautotrophic microorganisms would use Fe2+ as a primary metabolic electron donor and NO3- or gaseous O2 as a terminal electron acceptor. In a closed model system, biomass production was limited by the electron donor Fe2+ and metabolically required P, and typically amounted to ~800 pg of dry biomass/ml (~8,500 cells/ml). Continued growth requires propagation of microbes to new fecund environments, delivery of fresh pore fluid, or continued reaction with the host material. Within the shallow cryosphere—where oxygen can be accessed by microbes and microbes can be accessed by exploration—lithoautotrophs can function within as little as three monolayers of interfacial water formed either by adsorption from the atmosphere or in regions of ice stability where temperatures are within some tens of degrees of the ice melting point. For the selected reference host material (shergottite analog) and associated inorganic fluid chemistry, complete local reaction of the host material potentially yields a time-integrated biomass of ~0.1 mg of dry biomass/g of host material (~109 cells/g). Biomass could also be sustained where solutes can be delivered by advection (cryosuction) or diffusion in interfacial water; however, both of these processes are relatively inefficient. Lithoautotrophs in near-surface thin films of water, therefore, would optimize their metabolism by deriving energy and nutrients locally. Although the selected chemistry and associated model output indicate that lithoautotrophic microbial biomass could accrue within shallow interfacial water on Mars, it is likely that these organisms would spend long periods in maintenance or survival modes, with instantaneous biomass comparable to or less than that observed in extreme environments on Earth.

SpaceRef staff editor.