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Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2012 Jun 19;109(25):9750-4. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1205223109. Epub 2012 Jun 7.

Differentiating biotic from abiotic methane genesis in hydrothermally active planetary surfaces.

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Department of Geological Sciences, University of Canterbury, Christchurch 8140, New Zealand.


Molecular hydrogen (H(2)) is derived from the hydrothermal alteration of olivine-rich planetary crust. Abiotic and biotic processes consume H(2) to produce methane (CH(4)); however, the extent of either process is unknown. Here, we assess the temporal dependence and limit of abiotic CH(4) related to the presence and formation of mineral catalysts during olivine hydrolysis (i.e., serpentinization) at 200 °C and 0.03 gigapascal. Results indicate that the rate of CH(4) production increases to a maximum value related to magnetite catalyzation. By identifying the dynamics of CH(4) production, we kinetically model how the H(2) to CH(4) ratio may be used to assess the origin of CH(4) in deep subsurface serpentinization systems on Earth and Mars. Based on our model and available field data, low H(2)/CH(4) ratios (less than approximately 40) indicate that life is likely present and active.

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