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Some Ecological Mechanisms to Generate Habitability in Planetary Subsurface Areas by Chemolithotrophic Communities: The Rio Tinto Subsurface Ecosystem

Status Report From: Mary Ann Liebert Inc.
Posted: Monday, February 25, 2008

Astrobiology. February 1, 2008, 8(1): 157-173.

http://www.liebertonline.com/doi/pdfplus/10.1089/ast.2006.0022

Chemolithotrophic communities that colonize subsurface habitats have great relevance for the astrobiological exploration of our Solar System. We hypothesize that the chemical and thermal stabilization of an environment through microbial activity could make a given planetary region habitable. The MARTE project ground-truth drilling campaigns that sampled cryptic subsurface microbial communities in the basement of the Rio Tinto headwaters have shown that acidic surficial habitats are the result of the microbial oxidation of pyritic ores. The oxidation process is exothermic and releases heat under both aerobic and anaerobic conditions. These microbial communities can maintain the subsurface habitat temperature through storage heat if the subsurface temperature does not exceed their maximum growth temperature. In the acidic solutions of the Rio Tinto, ferric iron acts as an effective buffer for controlling water pH. Under anaerobic conditions, ferric iron is the oxidant used by microbes to decompose pyrite through the production of sulfate, ferrous iron, and protons. The integration between the physical and chemical processes mediated by microorganisms with those driven by the local geology and hydrology have led us to hypothesize that thermal and chemical regulation mechanisms exist in this environment and that these homeostatic mechanisms could play an essential role in creating habitable areas for other types of microorganisms. Therefore, searching for the physicochemical expression of extinct and extant homeostatic mechanisms through physical and chemical anomalies in the Mars crust (i.e., local thermal gradient or high concentration of unusual products such as ferric sulfates precipitated out from acidic solutions produced by hypothetical microbial communities) could be a first step in the search for biological traces of a putative extant or extinct Mars biosphere. Astrobiology 8, 157-173.

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