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2002 Annual Science Report

Harvard University Reporting  |  JUL 2001 – JUN 2002

The Planetary Context of Biological Evolution: Geobiology of Neogene Hematitic Sedimentary Rocks

4 Institutions
3 Teams
0 Publications
0 Field Sites
Field Sites

Project Progress

This year, we made important progress in understanding how aspects of life and environment become encrypted in hematitic sedimentary rocks being deposited in the Rio Tinto region of southwestern Spain. Precambrian iron formations and Martian hematite share a need for careful studies of modern analog ecosystems where biological and physical processes can be tied directly to paleobiological and geochemical patterns in deposited iron-rich sediments. The Rio Tinto drainage area of southern Spain offers just such an opportunity.

During the past funding year, we completed two field sessions in the Rio Tinto region with colleagues from the Spanish Centro de Astrobiologia (CAB). Using a combination of petrology, Moessbauer spctroscopy and X-ray diffraction (XRD), we established that iron sediments precipitated from Rio Tinto waters are primarily hydronium jarosite, with unusual Fe-sulfates such as copiapite and poorly ordered iron oxides forming late in the season, when water pools evaporate to dryness. Early in diagenesis, highly soluble jarosites are replaced by goethite, which has a high capacity for preserving cellular details of cells and tissues caught up in Rio Tinto sediments. In ca. 300,000 year old terraces, much goethite has, in turn, been replaced by hematite, some of which is coarse grained. Thus, through diagenesis, Rio Tinto sediments come to resemble hematites observed on the Martian surface. Comparison of modern and Pleistocene sediments also shows that aspects of physical and biological environment are encrypted in the textures of Fe-sediments, providing a basis for the interpretation of images returned from the Mars Exploration Rover (MER).

    Andrew Knoll
    Project Investigator

    Ariel Anbar

    David Fernández Remolar

    Richard Morris

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

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