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Understanding Microbial Contributions to Planetary AtmosphereShould our search of distant, extrasolar planetary atmospheres encounter evidence of life, that evidence will most likely be the gaseous products of microorganisms. Our biosphere was exclusively microbial for over 80 percent of its history and, even today, microbes strongly influence atmospheric composition. Life's greatest environmental impact arises from its capacity for harvesting energy and creating organic matter. Microorganisms catalyze the equilibration of C, S and transition metal species at temperatures where such reactions can be very slow in the absence of life. Sunlight has been harvested through photosynthesis to create enormous energy reservoirs that exist in the form of coexisting reservoirs of reduced, organic C and S stored in Earth's crust, and highly oxidized species (oxygen, sulfate and ferric iron) stored in the crust, oceans and atmosphere. Our civilization taps that storehouse of energy by burning fossil fuels. As astrobiologists, we identify the chemical consequences of distant biospheres as expressed in the atmospheres of their planets. Our approach must recognize that planets, biospheres and atmospheres evolve and change. For example, a tectonically more active early Earth hosted a thermophilic, non-photosynthetic biosphere and a mildly reducing, carbon dioxide-rich and oxygen-poor atmosphere. Microorganisms acquired energy by consuming hydrogen and sulfide and producing a broad array of reduced C and S gases, most notably, methane. Later, diverse types of bacterial photosynthesis developed that enhanced productivity but were incapable of splitting water to produce oxygen. Later, but still prior to 2.6 billion years ago, oxygenic photosynthesis developed. We can expect to encounter distant biospheres that represent various stages of evolution and that coexist with atmospheres ranging from mildly reducing to oxidizing compositions. Accordinaly, we must be prepared to interpret a broad range of atmospheric compositions, all containing signatures of life. Remarkably little is known about the composition of our own earlier atmosphere, particularly prior to the rise of oxygen levels some 2.0 to 2.2 billion years ago. Thus, field and laboratory observations and theoretical simulations should be conducted to examine the relationships between the structure and function of microbial ecosystems and their gaseous products. Ecosystems that are analogs of our ancient biosphere (e.g., based upon chemosynthesis or non-oxygenic photosynthesis, thermophilic and subsurface communities, etc.) should be included. Because key environmental parameters such as temperature and levels of hydrogen, carbon dioxide and oxygen varied during planetary evolution, their consequences for microbial ecosystems should be explored.
Document ID
Document Type
Preprint (Draft being sent to journal)
DesMarais, David J. (NASA Ames Research Center Moffett Field, CA United States)
Date Acquired
August 20, 2013
Publication Date
January 1, 2000
Subject Category
Life Sciences (General)
Meeting Information
Astrobiology Science(Moffett Field, CA)
Funding Number(s)
PROJECT: RTOP 344-50-92-02
Distribution Limits
Work of the US Gov. Public Use Permitted.