Salty Hiding Places for Life on Mars

Precipitates from the Rio Tinto conceal microorganisms (green) within saline microniches. Credit: F. Gomez / CAB

The high doses of radiation, lack of moisture and extreme temperature and pressure on the surface of Mars make the development of life difficult. Within this hostile environment, scientists are searching for “friendlier” niches that could encourage life. One of the candidate niches is the salt deposits.

A team from the Center of Astrobiology (CAB, INTA-CSIC) has analyzed this kind of environment on Earth: the salt deposits associated to a mineral with sulphur and iron named natrojarosite. It can be found in the Río Tinto basin in Huelva and is very similar to one detected on Mars: jarosite. Its presence reveals the past or present existence of water.

“The salt deposits are good ‘hosts’ for biological remains and even life itself in extreme circumstances,” as outlined to SINC by Felipe Gómez, coauthor of the study published in the journal Planetary and Space Science.

Precipitates from the Rio Tinto in Spain. Credit: F. Gomez/CAB

“The reason is that conditions in this environment remain less adverse than those of their surroundings given that they provide protection from radiation for example, and they keep moisture levels higher than outside,” explains the researcher.

With the help of microscopic techniques and molecular ecology, the team has discovered a film of bacteria and algae living in salt ‘microniches’ invisible to the naked eye. Up to five different morphologies have been found of microorganisms belonging to the Dunaliella and Cyanidium genera.

The deposits analyzed have been formed by layers each with a width of just a few millimeters. They make up a “completely different” ecosystem to the strange environment of Río Tinto.

“The precipitated minerals could only have been formed in such an acidic environment like this one and it is still even home to microbial communities in development. In order words, here they find their ideal environment,” says Gómez.

According to the study, “the discovery of these protected microniches in one of Mars’ analogue on Earth, like Río Tinto, is an important step in evaluating the habitability potential of the red planet.”

NASA’s Mars Global Surveyor probe has already detected alluvial fan-shaped salt formations on the Martian surface and scientists believe that that they could exist below the frozen ocean of one of Jupiter’s satellites, Europa.

“From the astrological point of view, salt deposits are of great importance and should be considered when searching for life on space exploration missions, like the current Curiosity rover mission on Mars,” concludes Gómez. In fact, salt deposits of astrobiological interest have been found not far from where the NASA rover is.

On Earth the CAB team has also studied extreme salt environments in Chott el Djerid Lake (Tunisia) and under the Atacama Desert (Chile).