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Searching for Biogeochemical Cycles on MarsThe search for life on Mars clearly benefits from a rigorous, yet broad, definition of life that compels us to consider all possible lines of evidence for a martian biosphere. Recent studies in microbial ecology illustrate that the classic definition of life should be expanded beyond the traditional definition of a living cell. The traditional defining characteristics of life are threefold. First, life is capable of metabolism, that is, it performs chemical reactions that utilize energy and also synthesize its cellular constituents. Second, life is capable of self-replication. Third, life can evolve in order to adapt to environmental changes. An expanded, ecological definition of life also recognizes that life is a community of organisms that must interact with their nonliving environment through processes called biogeochemical cycles. This regenerative processing maintains, in an aqueous conditions, a dependable supply of nutrients and energy for growth. In turn, life can significantly affect those processes that control the exchange of materials between the atmosphere, ocean, and upper crust. Because metabolic processes interact directly with the environment, they can alter their surroundings and thus leave behind evidence of life. For example, organic matter is produced from single-carbon-atom precursors for the biosynthesis of cellular constituents. This leads to a reservoir of reduced carbon in sediments that, in turn, can affect the oxidation state of the atmosphere. The harvesting of chemical energy for metabolism often employs oxidation-reduction reactions that can alter the chemistry and oxidation state of the redox-sensitive elements carbon, sulfur, nitrogen, iron, and manganese. Have there ever been biogeochemical cycles on Mars? Certain key planetary processes can offer clues. Active volcanism provides reduced chemical species that biota can use for organic synthesis. Volcanic carbon dioxide and methane can serve as greenhouse gases. Thus the persistence of volcanism on Mars may well have influenced the persistence of a martian biosphere. The geologic processing of the crust can affect the availability of nutrients and also control the deposition of minerals that could have served as a medium for the preservation of fossil information. Finally, the activity of liquid water is crucial to life. Was there ever an Earth-like hydrologic cycle with rainfall? Has aqueous activity instead been restricted principally to hydrothermal activity below the surface? To what extent did the inorganic chemistry driven by sunlight and hydrothermal activity influence organic chemistry (prebiotic chemical evolution)? This paper addresses these and other key questions.
Document ID
Document Type
Conference Paper
DesMarais, David J.
(NASA Ames Research Center Moffett Field, CA United States)
Date Acquired
August 18, 2013
Publication Date
January 1, 1997
Publication Information
Publication: Mars 2005 Sample Return Workshop
Subject Category
Lunar And Planetary Exploration
Distribution Limits
Work of the US Gov. Public Use Permitted.

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IDRelationTitle19980032164Analytic PrimaryMars 2005 Sample Return Workshop
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