Investigation of Archean microfossil preservation for defining science objectives for Mars sample return missions

Tuesday, 16 December 2014
Kira Lorber, University of Cincinnati Main Campus, Cincinnati, OH, United States and Andrew D Czaja, University of Cincinnati Main Campus, Department of Geology, Cincinnati, OH, United States
Recent studies suggest that Mars contains more potentially life-supporting habitats (either in the present or past), than once thought. The key to finding life on Mars, whether extinct or extant, is to first understand which biomarkers and biosignatures are strictly biogenic in origin. Studying ancient habitats and fossil organisms of the early Earth can help to characterize potential Martian habitats and preserved life. This study, which focuses on the preservation of fossil microorganisms from the Archean Eon, aims to help define in part the science methods needed for a Mars sample return mission, of which, the Mars 2020 rover mission is the first step.

Here is reported variations in the geochemical and morphological preservation of filamentous fossil microorganisms (microfossils) collected from the 2.5-billion-year-old Gamohaan Formation of the Kaapvaal Craton of South Africa. Samples of carbonaceous chert were collected from outcrop and drill core within ~1 km of each other. Specimens from each location were located within thin sections and their biologic morphologies were confirmed using confocal laser scanning microscopy. Raman spectroscopic analyses documented the carbonaceous nature of the specimens and also revealed variations in the level of geochemical preservation of the kerogen that comprises the fossils. The geochemical preservation of kerogen is principally thought to be a function of thermal alteration, but the regional geology indicates all of the specimens experienced the same thermal history. It is hypothesized that the fossils contained within the outcrop samples were altered by surface weathering, whereas the drill core samples, buried to a depth of ~250 m, were not. This differential weathering is unusual for cherts that have extremely low porosities. 

Through morphological and geochemical characterization of the earliest known forms of fossilized life on the earth, a greater understanding of the origin of evolution of life on Earth is gained. This study allows a unique insight into the complex nature of microfossil preservation, even between samples taken from similar depositional environments. These investigations also may aid in our knowledge of where and how to search for possible life on Mars and how to plan the scientific requirements of the proposed Mars sample return missions.