In situ Raman spectroscopy and confocal microscopy of 2.5-billion-year-old fossil microorganisms: viable nondestructive techniques for the study of returned Martian samples
Abstract:This study presents the discovery of two sets of Archean fossil microorganisms (microfossils) and describes how such a study can be an analogue for a potential Martian sample return mission like that proposed as a follow up to the Mars 2020 mission. Microfossils are not easily preserved and their simple morphologies (made less distinct by taphonomy and diagenesis) can be confused with nonbiological structures. Thus, several lines of evidence are required for a biological interpretation of such remains. Despite this limitation, microfossils represent the most direct and easily illustrated evidence of life, and this will also be true of any microfossils that might be found on Mars. Martian sample return will provide the first chance to apply a full suite of analytical techniques to the study of possible Martian microfossils. Because such precious samples would be of limited quantity, this suite must include nondestructive techniques that are performed in situ and at a micron-scale.
The samples studied here were collected from two chert units within the Gamohaan Formation of the Kaapvaal Craton of South Africa. One set was collected from the Tsineng Member near the top of the formation and contains fossils of mat-forming filamentous microorganisms (~15–20 µm in diameter) that were buried in place. The other set comes from a chert bed stratigraphically lower within the Gamohaan Formation. This bed contains shriveled and somewhat compacted spherical microfossils (~100 µm in diameter) and are interpreted to be the remains of planktonic forms that settled from above. Cherts were collected based on a visual identification of their likelihood to contain microfossils. Optical microscopy was used to locate microstructures of interest within thin sections. The biological nature of these structures is supported by analyses of their three dimensional morphologies by confocal laser scanning microscopy (CLSM) as well as their carbonaceous compositions by Raman spectroscopy. Raman and CLSM are nondestructive techniques that can be used to analyze specimens within rock to the depth of several tens of microns with no special sample preparation. Also, because Raman and CLSM can be used to study modern microorganisms, they are ideal techniques for the study of returned Martian samples that could contain either fossil or living material.