Can Analysis of Acetylene and Its Biodegradation Products in Enceladus Plumes be Used to Detect the Presence of Sub-Surface Life?

Friday, 19 December 2014
Laurence G Miller, Shaun M Baesman and Ronald S Oremland, USGS WRD, Menlo Park, CA, United States
The search for biosignatures of life on Earth includes measurement of the stable isotope fractionation of reactants and products attributed to enzymatic processes and comparison with the often smaller chemical (abiotic) fractionation. We propose that this approach might be applied to study the origin and fate of organic compounds contained in water vapor plumes emanating from Enceladus or other icy bodies, perhaps revealing information about the potential for biology occurring within a sub-surface “habitable” zone. Methanol and C2-hydrocarbons including ethylene, ethane and acetylene (C2H2) have been identified in the plumes of Enceladus. Biological degradation of acetylene proceeds by anaerobic fermentation via acetylene hydratase through acetaldehyde, with a second enzyme (acetaldehyde dismutase) forming acetate and ethanol. We found that incubation of cultures of acetylene-fermenting bacteria exhibit a kinetic isotope effect (KIE) associated with the net removal of C2H2. Consumption of acetylene by both growing and washed-cell cultures of bacteria closely related to Pelobacter acetylenicus (e.g, strain SFB93) was accompanied by a carbon isotopic fractionation of about 2 per mil (KIE = 1.8-2.7 ‰), a result we are examining with other cultures of acetylene fermenters. In addition, we are measuring the carbon isotopic composition of acetaldehyde, ethanol and acetate during fermentation to learn whether these products are fractionated sufficiently, relative to their substrate, to warrant measurement of their isotopic composition in Enceladus (or Europa) plumes to indicate enzymatic activity in liquid environments below the crust of these moons.