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Physical and chemical mechanisms that impact the detection, identification, and quantification of organic matter and the survival of microorganisms on the Martian surface – a review

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  31 January 2022

Ebbe Norskov Bak
Department of Biology, Microbiology Section, Aarhus University, Ny Munkegade 114–116, DK-8000 Aarhus C, Denmark
Per Nørnberg
Department of Biology, Microbiology Section, Aarhus University, Ny Munkegade 114–116, DK-8000 Aarhus C, Denmark
Svend J. Knak Jensen
Department of Chemistry, Aarhus University, Langelandsgade 140, DK-8000 Aarhus C, Denmark
Jan Thøgersen
Department of Chemistry, Aarhus University, Langelandsgade 140, DK-8000 Aarhus C, Denmark
Kai Finster*
Department of Biology, Microbiology Section, Aarhus University, Ny Munkegade 114–116, DK-8000 Aarhus C, Denmark Stellar Astrophysics Centre, Department of Physics and Astronomy, Aarhus University, Ny Munkegade 120, DK-8000 Aarhus C, Denmark
Author for correspondence: Kai Finster, E-mail:


The iconic Viking Landers that landed on Mars in 1976 demonstrated that the Martian surface is an extreme place, dominated by high UV fluxes and regolith chemistry capable of oxidizing organic molecules. From follow-on missions, we have learned that Mars was much warmer and wetter in its early history, and even some areas of Mars (such as crater lakes, possibly with sustained hydrothermal activity) were habitable places (e.g. Grotzinger et al. (2014). Science (New York, N.Y.) 343; Mangold et al. (2021). Science (New York, N.Y.). However, based on the Viking results we have learnt that the search for life and its remains is challenged by abiotic breakdown and alteration of organic material. In particular, the harsh radiation climate at the Martian surface that directly and indirectly could degrade organics has been held accountable for the lack of organics in the Martian regolith. Recent work simulating wind-driven erosion of basalts under Mars-like conditions has shown that this process, comparable to UV- and ionizing radiation, produces reactive compounds, kills microbes and removes methane from the atmosphere. and thereby could equally jeopardize the success of life-seeking missions to Mars. In this review, we summarize and discuss previous work on the role of physical and chemical mechanisms that affect the persistence of organics, and their consequences for the detection of life and/or its signatures in the Martian regolith and in the atmosphere.

Review Article
Copyright © The Author(s), 2022. Published by Cambridge University Press

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