Protocol for Identifying Fossil Biofilm Microfabrics in Archean and Martian Sedimentary Rocks

Tuesday, 16 December 2014
Tomaso R.R. Bontognali, Judith A. McKenzie and Chris Vasconcelos, ETH Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zurich, Zurich, Switzerland
Microbial communities commonly live and grow in aggregates called biofilm. This slimy material is composed of exopolymeric substances (EPS) secreted from the microbial cell to the surrounding environment. Certain biofilms show internal microscopic fabrics, as for example, regularly shaped alveolar structures. These microfabrics are often considered as artifacts due to the dehydration steps required for scanning electron microscopy. However, recent studies have demonstrated that some microfabrics are not artifacts but actual structures, whose architecture is controlled by the microorganisms. These findings, mainly achieved for medical purposes, may have yet unconsidered implications for the search of early life on Earth and on Mars. Indeed, evidence exists that the microfabrics can be mineralized during early diagenesis, preserving fossil imprints of the original biofilm throughout the geological record. Here, we present the results of microscopic investigations of ancient sediments of various age, composition and metamorphic degree that contain microfabrics that we interpret as fossil biofilms. We compile a list of criteria that need to be evaluated before excluding that the putative fossil biofilms may be artifacts due to sample preparation or late stage contamination of the studied rocks. Additionally, we compare these microfabrics to those produced by pure cultures of microorganism grown in the laboratory, as well as microfabrics present in microbial mats that develop in modern evaporitic environments. Finally, we discuss the hypothesis – and the evidence that already exists in its support – that the micrometric size and the morphology of the EPS fabrics is specific to the organism and the genome concerned. By establishing a linkage between specific microbes and the architecture of the mineralized microfabrics, it may be possible to gain precise taxonomic information on early life, as well as to establish a new type of morphological biosignature to be searched for in Martian rocks during the forthcoming rover missions.