Tuesday, October 27, 2015

A Method for Classifying and Evaluating Biologically Altered Volcanic Rocks on Mars

A Hierarchical System for Evaluating the Biogenicity of Metavolcanic- and Ultramafic-Hosted Microalteration Textures in the Search for Extraterrestrial Life


McLoughlin et al


The low-temperature alteration of submarine volcanic glasses has been argued to involve the activity of microorganisms, and analogous fluid-rock-microbial-mediated alteration has also been postulated on Mars. However, establishing the extent to which microbes are involved in volcanic glass alteration has proven to be difficult, and the reliability of resulting textural biosignatures is debated, particularly in the early rock record. We therefore propose a hierarchical scheme to evaluate the biogenicity of candidate textural biosignatures found in altered terrestrial and extraterrestrial basaltic glasses and serpentinized ultramafic rocks.

The hierarchical scheme is formulated to give increasing confidence of a biogenic origin and involves (i) investigation of the textural context and syngenicity of the candidate biosignature; (ii) characterization of the morphology and size range of the microtextures; (iii) mapping of the geological and physicochemical variables controlling the occurrence and preservation of the microtextures; (iv) in situ investigation of chemical signatures that are syngenetic to the microtexture; and (v) identification of growth patterns suggestive of biological behavior and redox variations in the host minerals. The scheme results in five categories of candidate biosignature as follows: Category 1 indicates preservation of very weak evidence for biogenicity, Categories 2 through 4 indicate evidence for increasing confidence of a biogenic origin, and Category 5 indicates that biogenic origin is most likely.

We apply this hierarchical approach to examine the evidence for a biogenic origin of several examples, including candidate bacterial encrustations in altered pillow lavas, granular and tubular microtextures in volcanic glass from the subseafloor and a Phanerozoic ophiolite, mineralized microtextures in Archean metavolcanic glass, and alteration textures in olivines of the martian meteorite Yamato 000593. The aim of this hierarchical approach is to provide a framework for identifying robust biosignatures of microbial life in the altered oceanic crust on Earth, and in extraterrestrial altered mafic-ultramafic rocks, particularly on Mars.

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