Fossilized Microorganisms from the Emperor Seamounts: Implications for the Search for a Subsurface Fossil Record on Earth and Mars

Status Report From: Astrobiology
Posted: Wednesday, February 11, 2009

We have observed filamentous carbon-rich structures in samples drilled at 3 different seamounts that belong to the Emperor Seamounts in the Pacific Ocean: Detroit (81 Ma), Nintoku (56 Ma), and Koko Seamounts (48 Ma). The samples consist of low-temperature altered basalts recovered from all 3 seamounts. The maximum depth from which the samples were retrieved was 954 meters below seafloor (mbsf).

The filamentous structures occur in veins and fractures in the basalts, where they are attached to the vein walls and embedded in vein-filling minerals like calcite, aragonite, and gypsum. The filaments were studied with a combination of optical microscopy, environmental scanning electron microscopy (ESEM), Raman spectroscopy, and time-of-flight secondary ion mass spectrometry (ToF-SIMS). Minerals were identified by a combination of optical microscopy, X-ray diffraction, Raman spectrometry, and energy dispersive spectrometry on an environmental scanning electron microscope.

Carbon content of the filaments ranges between 10 wt % and 50 wt % and is not associated with carbonates. These results indicate an organic origin of the carbon. The presence of C2H4, phosphate, and lipid-like molecules in the filaments further supports a biogenic origin. We also found microchannels in volcanic glass enriched in carbon (1040 wt %) compatible with putative microbial activity. Our findings suggest new niches for life in subseafloor environments and have implications for further exploration of the subseafloor biosphere on Earth and beyond.

Astrobiology. December 2008, 8(6): 1139-1157.

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