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2001 Annual Science Report

NASA Johnson Space Center Reporting  |  JUL 2000 – JUN 2001

Morphologic Biomarkers and Microbial Ecology

4 Institutions
3 Teams
0 Publications
0 Field Sites
Field Sites

Project Progress

Morphologic Biomarkers and Microbial Ecology (dm)

The purpose of this project is to study a large variety of terrestrial samples to document the micromorphology of microbial biota, both extant life and fossilized life. The goal is to (1) determine, characterize, and document new biomarkers, and (2) relate microbial types, variations, and related features such as biofilms and mineral precipitates to environment, including acidity, water temperature, water chemistry, and changes in these over hours, days, seasons, years, and geologic time. The application is to provide new potential biomarkers for Mars samples and other astromaterials, and to contribute to our understanding of the effects of environmental parameters on microbial life and their resulting biomarkers. This project considers both extant life and fossilized life.

During the past year we have studied fossil microbes in the Gunflint formation, a complex variety of extant microbes and biofilm forming stromatolite structures in Storr’s Lake in the Bahamas, a variety of biofilms from several locations, and daily and seasonal variations of microbes in a hot spring in Yellowstone. We have found (along with many others) that the Gunflint formation contains abundant evidence for microbes and we are trying to determine whether the various minerals are bioprecipitated, bioassisted, or coincidentally coexistent with microbes. In addition, we have documented possible fossilized microbial structures in the Mars meteorite Nakhla and also in Shergotty. Studies are underway to determine whether these structures are associated with organic compounds, have martian deuterium isotopic ratios, and have carbon isotopic ratios characteristic of martian materials. We found that the hot springs studied in Yellowstone show daily variations in hydrogen peroxide content related to UV solar flux and also to breakdown of hydrogen peroxide by microbial activity. We have also shown significant seasonal and longer term variations of sediments in a Yellowstone hot springs which may be related to different sources of water, water chemistry variation, and the resultant change in the mix of bacteria species.

With our Russian colleagues we have documented possibly the best phosphate microfossils ever found from a deposit of Cambrian phosphorites from Mongolia, and have published a photographic atlas of many of them. Phosphate microfossils are bacteria that are mineralized mainly by Ca-phosphate. They provide an important control for comparison to carbonate-replaced microbes, iron oxide-replaced microbes, or silica-replaced microbes.

    David McKay
    Project Investigator

    Carlton Allen

    Nancy Hinman

    Richard Hoover

    Thomas Kieft

    Penny Morris-Smith

    Kathie Thomas-Keprta

    Susan Wentworth

    Frances Westall

    Monica Byrne
    Undergraduate Student

    Rachel Schelble
    Undergraduate Student

    Objective 5.0
    Describe the sequences of causes and effects associated with the development of Earth's early biosphere and the global environment.

    Objective 6.0
    Define how ecophysiological processes structure microbial communities, influence their adaptation and evolution, and affect their detection on other planets.

    Objective 7.0
    Identify the environmental limits for life by examining biological adaptations to extremes in environmental conditions.

    Objective 8.0
    Search for evidence of ancient climates, extinct life and potential habitats for extant life on Mars.

    Objective 17.0
    Refine planetary protection guidelines and develop protection technology for human and robotic missions.