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Evidence for life in the isotopic analysis of surface sulphates in the Haughton impact structure, and potential application on Mars

  • John Parnell (a1), Adrian J. Boyce (a2), Gordon R. Osinski (a3), Matthew R.M. Izawa (a3), Neil Banerjee (a3), Roberta Flemming (a3) and Pascal Lee (a4)...

The analysis of sulphur isotopic compositions in three sets of surface sulphate samples from the soil zone in the Haughton impact structure shows that they are distinct. They include surface gypsum crusts remobilized from the pre-impact gypsum bedrock (mean δ34S +31‰), efflorescent copiapite and fibroferrite associated with hydrothermal marcasite (mean δ34S −37‰), and gypsum-iron oxide crusts representing weathering of pyritic crater-fill sediments (mean δ34S +7‰). Their different compositions reflect different histories of sulphur cycling. Two of the three sulphates have isotopically light (low δ34S) compositions compared with the gypsum bedrock (mean δ34S +31‰), reflecting derivation by weathering of sulphides (three sets of pyrite/marcasite samples with mean δ34S of −41, −20 and −8‰), which had in turn been precipitated by microbial sulphate reduction. Thus, even in the absence of the parent sulphides due to surface oxidation, evidence of life would be preserved. This indicates that on Mars, where surface oxidation may rule out sampling of sulphides during robotic exploration, but where sulphates are widespread, sulphur isotope analysis is a valuable tool that could be sensitive to any near-surface microbial activity. Other causes of sulphur isotopic fractionation on the surface of Mars are feasible, but any anomalous fractionation would indicate the desirability of further analysis.

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