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Astrobiology. 2006 Apr;6(2):364-76.

Serpentinization and its implications for life on the early Earth and Mars.

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Exobiology Branch, NASA Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, California, USA.


Ophiolites, sections of ocean crust tectonically displaced onto land, offer significant potential to support chemolithoautotrophic life through the provision of energy and reducing power during aqueous alteration of their highly reduced mineralogies. There is substantial chemical disequilibrium between the primary olivine and pyroxene mineralogy of these ophiolites and the fluids circulating through them. This disequilibrium represents a potential source of chemical energy that could sustain life. Moreover, E (h)-pH conditions resulting from rock- water interactions in ultrabasic rocks are conducive to important abiotic processes antecedent to the origin of life. Serpentinization--the reaction of olivine- and pyroxene-rich rocks with water--produces magnetite, hydroxide, and serpentine minerals, and liberates molecular hydrogen, a source of energy and electrons that can be readily utilized by a broad array of chemosynthetic organisms. These systems are viewed as important analogs for potential early ecosystems on both Earth and Mars, where highly reducing mineralogy was likely widespread in an undifferentiated crust. Secondary phases precipitated during serpentinization have the capability to preserve organic or mineral biosignatures. We describe the petrology and mineral chemistry of an ophiolite-hosted cold spring in northern California and propose criteria to aid in the identification of serpentinizing terranes on Mars that have the potential to harbor chemosynthetic life.

[Indexed for MEDLINE]

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