Earth-like Habitable Environments in the Subsurface of Mars

Research areas:
  • J. D. Tarnas
  • J. F. Mustard
  • B. Sherwood Lollar
  • V. Stamenković
  • K. M. Cannon
  • Jean-Pierre Lorand
  • T. C. Onstott
  • J. R. Michalski
  • O. Warr
  • A. M. Palumbo
  • A. -C. Plesa
PMID: 33885329
In Earth's deep continental subsurface, where groundwaters are often isolated for >106 to 109 years, energy released by radionuclides within rock produces oxidants and reductants that drive metabolisms of non-photosynthetic microorganisms. Similar processes could support past and present life in the martian subsurface. Sulfate-reducing microorganisms are common in Earth's deep subsurface, often using hydrogen derived directly from radiolysis of pore water and sulfate derived from oxidation of rock-matrix-hosted sulfides by radiolytically derived oxidants. Radiolysis thus produces redox energy to support a deep biosphere in groundwaters isolated from surface substrate input for millions to billions of years on Earth. Here, we demonstrate that radiolysis by itself could produce sufficient redox energy to sustain a habitable environment in the subsurface of present-day Mars, one in which Earth-like microorganisms could survive wherever groundwater exists. We show that the source localities for many martian meteorites are capable of producing sufficient redox nutrients to sustain up to millions of sulfate-reducing microbial cells per kilogram rock via radiolysis alone, comparable to cell densities observed in many regions of Earth's deep subsurface. Additionally, we calculate variability in supportable sulfate-reducing cell densities between the martian meteorite source regions. Our results demonstrate that martian subsurface groundwaters, where present, would largely be habitable for sulfate-reducing bacteria from a redox energy perspective via radiolysis alone. We present evidence for crustal regions that could support especially high cell densities, including zones with high sulfide concentrations, which could be targeted by future subsurface exploration missions.