Biomarkers as Tracers for Life on Early Earth and Mars

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Biomarkers in geological samples are products derived from biochemical (natural product) precursors by reductive and oxidative processes (e.g., cholestanes from cholesterol). Generally, lipids, pigments and biomembranes are preserved best over longer geological times and labile compounds such as amino acids, sugars, etc. are useful biomarkers for recent times. Thus, the detailed characterization of biomarker compositions permits the assessment of the major contributing species of extinct and/or extant life. In the case of the early Earth, work has progressed to elucidate molecular structure and carbon isotopic signals preserved in ancient sedimentary rocks. In addition, the combination of bacterial biochemistry with the organic geochemistry of contemporary and ancient hydrothermal ecosystems permits the modeling of the nature, behavior and preservation potential of primitive microbial communities. This approach uses combined molecular and isotopic analyses to characterize lipids produced by cultured bacteria (representative of ancient strains) and to test a variety of culture conditions which affect their biosynthesis. On considering Mars, the biomarkers from lipids and biopolymers would be expected to be preserved best if life flourished there during its early history (3.5–4 × 109 yr ago). Both oxidized and reduced products would be expected. This is based on the inferred occurrence of hydrothermal activity during that time with the concomitant preservation of biochemically-derived organic matter. Both known biomarkers (i.e., as elucidated for early terrestrial samples and for primitive terrestrial microbiota) and novel, potentially unknown compounds should be characterized.

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