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Icarus. 1992;95:300-8.

On the possibility of chemosynthetic ecosystems in subsurface habitats on Mars.

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Complex Systems Research, Boulder, Colorado 80301-0003, USA.


We have reexamined the question of extant microbial life on Mars in light of the most recent information about the planet and recently discovered nonphotosynthetic microbial ecosystems on Earth--deep sea hydrothermal vent communities and deep subsurface aquifer communities. On Mars, protected subsurface niches associated with hydrothermal activity could have continued to support life even after surface conditions became inhospitable. Geochemical evidence from the SNC meteorites and geomorphological evidence for recent volcanism suggest that such habitats could persist to the present time. There are also extensive geological features that attest to the ubiquitous nature of volcano-ground ice interactions on Mars. We suggest a possible deep subsurface microbial ecology similar to those discovered to depths of several kilometers below the surface of the Earth. We focus on anaerobic systems utilizing CO2 as the primary source of carbon. Liquid water could be provided by the heat of geothermal or volcanic activity melting permafrost or other subsurface water sources. Gases from volcanic activity deep in the planet could provide reducing power (as CH4, H2, or H2S) percolating up from below and enabling the development of a microbial community based upon chemolithoautotrophy. We suggest a methanogen (or acetogen) and sulfur-based microbial ecology as one possible basis for microbial primary production. Our hypothetical ecosystem is neither supported, nor excluded, by current observations of Mars. Tests for such a subsurface system involve locating active geothermal areas associated with ground ice or detecting trace quantities of reduced atmospheric gases that would leak from such a system.

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