Astrobiology August 2007, 7(4): 662-683
Hypersaline springs that host unique mid-continent marine ecosystems were examined in central Manitoba, Canada. The springs originate from a reflux of glacial meltwater that intrudes into underlying bedrock and dissolved buried salt beds. Two spring types were distinguished based both on flow rate and geochemistry. High flow springs (greater than 10 L/s) hosted extensive marine microbial mats, which were dominated by algae but also included diverse microbes. These varied somewhat between springs as indicated by changes in profiles of fatty acid methyl esters. Culture studies confirmed the presence of sulfate-reducing bacteria in sediments at the high flow sites. In contrast, low flow springs were affected by solar evaporation, increasing salinity, and temperature. These low flow springs behaved more like closed nutrient-limited systems and did not support microbial mats. Direct comparison of the high and low flow springs revealed interesting implications for the potential to record biosignatures in the rock record. High flow springs have abundant, well-developed microbial mats, which desiccate and are cemented along the edges of the spring pools; however, the high mass flux overwhelms any geochemical signature of microbial activity. In contrast, the nutrient-limited low flow sites develop strong geochemical signatures of sulfate reduction, even in the absence of microbial mats, due to less dilution with the lower flows. Geochemical and physical evidence for life did not correlate with the abundance of microbial life but, rather, with the extent to which the biological system formed a closed ecosystem.