Searching for Life in Death Valley (and Other Deserts) – Microchemical Investigations on Desert Varnish

Tuesday, 16 December 2014
Meinrat O Andreae1,2, Abdullah Mohammed Al-Amri2, Klaus P Jochum1, Michael Kappl3, A David Kilcoyne4, Dorothea Macholdt1, Maren Müller3, Christopher Pöhlker1, Bettina Weber1 and Markus Weigand5, (1)Max Planck Institute for Chemistry, Mainz, Germany, (2)King Saud University, Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, (3)Max Planck Institute for Polymer Research, Mainz, Germany, (4)Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, Berkeley, CA, United States, (5)Max Planck Institute for Intelligent Systems, Stuttgart, Germany
Desert varnishes are thin, shiny, blackish to brown coatings frequently found on the surfaces of exposed rocks in deserts around the globe. They have been proposed as terrestrial analogues of superficial hematite enrichments observed on Mars. While the first scientific studies of such varnishes go back to Darwin and von Humboldt, and intensive studies by a variety of techniques have been conducted over the last few decades, their origin is still a matter of debate. Microscopic and molecular studies have shown the presence of fungi and bacteria, but it is still unclear whether they are involved in the formation of the varnish material or just opportunistic colonizers on available surfaces.

We have analysed samples of desert varnish from sites in Death Valley, the Mojave Desert, the Negev of Israel, Central Saudi Arabia, and the Succulent Karoo by a variety of microanalytical techniques. Measurements by UV-femtosecond Laser Ablation Inductively Coupled Plasma Mass Spectrometry show enrichments of manganese, iron, barium and other elements. Isotopic and trace chemical signatures show that these enriched elements cannot originate from the rocks that form the substrate on which the crusts have been deposited, but most likely are the result of (bio?)chemical transformation of windblown material. For a more detailed investigation of the internal structure of the crusts, we prepared ultra-thin sections (~100 nm) using focused ion beam slicing and analysed them by Scanning Transmission X-ray Microscopy with Near-Edge X-ray Absorption Fine Structure spectroscopy (STXM-NEXAFS). This technique revealed layered or chaotic structures consisting of alternating Mn and Fe-rich zones. Some of these layers are enriched in organic carbon with spectral features dominated by aromatic and carboxylate functionalities, indicating a biological origin of some of the crust material. Some crusts also show cavities that are lined with similar organic material. Since the age of these crusts is of the order of 100-10,000 of years, this organic matter must represent fossil evidence that has survived intensive solar radiation, extreme temperatures, and chemical weathering over long periods of time within microns from the varnish surface.