Bioenergetic and Geobiological Possibilities of Methanotrophy on Mars

Monday, 15 December 2014
Jeffrey J Marlow1, Douglas LaRowe2, Bethany L Ehlmann3, Jan Amend2 and Victoria J Orphan3, (1)Organization Not Listed, Washington, DC, United States, (2)University of Southern California, Los Angeles, CA, United States, (3)California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, CA, United States
During its ancient past, Mars exhibited dynamic conditions that facilitated water-rock reactions, bringing unequilibrated chemical constituents into contact with each other. Such interactions have prompted speculation regarding the energetic output of redox reactions. The sulfate-driven anaerobic oxidation of methane (AOM) is one redox reaction that has not been carefully investigated in an ancient martian context, and yet, with recent reports of methane and sulfate-bearing minerals on Mars, it may be one of the more observationally constrained options for a putative metabolism.

In this work, we evaluate the Gibbs energies of the AOM metabolism under a range of atmospheric compositions using seven putative martian groundwater compositions. In all scenarios, AOM is exergonic, ranging from -31 to -135 kJ/mol CH4. A reaction transport model was developed to incorporate the advection and diffusion of nutrients, reaction rates, and the feedback between growing organisms’ nutrient consumption and downstream concentrations. The extent of crustal volume under exergonic conditions is set primarily by localized reactant concentration, while relative changes within the exergonic zone are driven primarily by product accumulation.

In order for AOM to have been an energetically viable metabolism on ancient Mars, co-located reactants would have been necessary. At NE Syrtis Major, serpentinization of the olivine-bearing unit may have produced hydrogen, which could generate methane in the abiotic reduction of CO2. In the overlying jarosite-bearing layer, sulfate and incoming methane provide the reactants for AOM. An alternative scenario for martian AOM involves methane production by subsurface hydrothermal alteration of basaltic crust, and acid sulfate conditions are produced from fluids derived near the surface. Sulfate-bearing waters are formed by aerosol deposition and subsequent dissolution of oxidized sulfur species by water.

Finally, continuing work on constraining martian reaction transport models from a microbiological perspective will be discussed. Understanding which parameters can be refined based on orbital or rover observations will aid in producing site-specific models that will help inform the search for signs of past or present life beneath the martian surface.