Martian mineral could be linked to microbes

May 20, 2014
The late Dr Linda Moore sampling microbialites. Photo by Bob Burne.

( —Scientists have discovered that the earliest living organisms on Earth were capable of making a mineral that may be found on Mars.

The clay- stevensite has been used since ancient times and was used by Nubian women as a beauty treatment, but scientists had believed deposits could only be formed in harsh conditions like volcanic lava and hot alkali lakes.

Researchers led by Dr Bob Burne from the ANU Research School of Earth Sciences have found living microbes create an environment that allows stevensite to form, raising new questions about the stevensite found on Mars.

"It's much more likely that the stevensite on Mars is made geologically, from volcanic activity," Dr Burne said.

"But our finding – that stevensite can form around biological organisms – will encourage re-interpretation of these Martian deposits and their possible links to life on that planet."

Dr Burne and his colleagues from ANU, University of Western Australia and rock imaging company Lithicon, have found microbes can become encrusted by stevensite, which protects their delicate insides and provides the rigidity to allow them to build reef-like structures called "microbialites".

"Microbialites are the earliest large-scale evidence of life on Earth," Dr Burne said. "They demonstrate how microscopic organisms are able to join together to build enormous structures that sometimes rivalled the size of today's coral reefs."

He said the process still happens today in some isolated places like Shark Bay and Lake Clifton in Western Australia.

"Stevensite is usually assumed to require highly alkaline conditions to form, such as volcanic soda lakes. But our stevensite microbialites grow in a lake less salty than seawater and with near-neutral pH."

One of the paper's authors, Dr Penny King from ANU, is a science co-investigator on NASA's Mars Curiosity rover, which uncovered the presence of possible Martian stevensite.

The findings also have implications for how some of the world's largest oil reservoirs were formed.

The discovery was made using ANU-developed imaging technology licensed to Lithicon. The data was run on Raijin, the most powerful supercomputer in the Southern Hemisphere, based at the National Computational Infrastructure in Canberra.

The research is published in Geology.

Explore further: New analysis of clay deposits in ancient Martian Lakes

Related Stories

New analysis of clay deposits in ancient Martian Lakes

March 16, 2012

Mars was once a much wetter world than it is now, with hot springs, rivers, lakes and perhaps even oceans. Just how wet exactly, and for how long, is still a subject of considerable debate. One vital clue comes from clay ...

New views of Mars from sediment mineralogy

December 10, 2013

The first detailed examination of clay mineralogy in its original setting on Mars is offering new insights on the planet's past habitability, research led by Planetary Science Institute Senior Scientist David T. Vaniman has ...

Meteorites yield clues to Martian early atmosphere

April 16, 2014

( —Geologists who analyzed 40 meteorites that fell to Earth from Mars unlocked secrets of the Martian atmosphere hidden in the chemical signatures of these ancient rocks. Their study, published April 17 in the ...

Image: NASA rover Opportunity's selfie shows clean machine

April 18, 2014

In its sixth Martian winter, NASA's Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity now has cleaner solar arrays than in any Martian winter since its first on the Red Planet, in 2005. Cleaning effects of wind events in March boosted the ...

Traces of recent water on Mars

April 25, 2014

New research has shown that there was liquid water on Mars as recently as 200,000 years ago. The results have been published in Icarus ( International Journal for Solar System Studies). "We have discovered a very young crater ...

Recommended for you

Can Paris pledges avert severe climate change?

November 26, 2015

More than 190 countries are meeting in Paris next week to create a durable framework for addressing climate change and to implement a process to reduce greenhouse gases over time. A key part of this agreement would be the ...

Don't forget plankton in climate change models, says study

November 26, 2015

A new study from the University of Exeter, published in the journal Ecology Letters, found that phytoplankton - microscopic water-borne plants - can rapidly evolve tolerance to elevated water temperatures. Globally, phytoplankton ...


Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.