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Life 2014, 4(4), 535-565; doi:10.3390/life4040535

Biota and Biomolecules in Extreme Environments on Earth: Implications for Life Detection on Mars

1
Molecular Cell Physiology, Faculty of Earth and Life Sciences, VU University Amsterdam, de Boelelaan 1085, 1081 HV Amsterdam, The Netherlands
2
Leiden Observatory, Leiden University, P.O. Box 9513, NL-2300 RA Leiden, The Netherlands
3
Space Policy Institute, George Washington University, Washington, DC 20052, USA
*
Author to whom correspondence should be addressed.
Received: 7 July 2014 / Revised: 8 September 2014 / Accepted: 16 September 2014 / Published: 13 October 2014
(This article belongs to the Special Issue Planetary Exploration: Habitats and Terrestrial Analogs)
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Abstract

The three main requirements for life as we know it are the presence of organic compounds, liquid water, and free energy. Several groups of organic compounds (e.g., amino acids, nucleobases, lipids) occur in all life forms on Earth and are used as diagnostic molecules, i.e., biomarkers, for the characterization of extant or extinct life. Due to their indispensability for life on Earth, these biomarkers are also prime targets in the search for life on Mars. Biomarkers degrade over time; in situ environmental conditions influence the preservation of those molecules. Nonetheless, upon shielding (e.g., by mineral surfaces), particular biomarkers can persist for billions of years, making them of vital importance in answering questions about the origins and limits of life on early Earth and Mars. The search for organic material and biosignatures on Mars is particularly challenging due to the hostile environment and its effect on organic compounds near the surface. In support of life detection on Mars, it is crucial to investigate analogue environments on Earth that resemble best past and present Mars conditions. Terrestrial extreme environments offer a rich source of information allowing us to determine how extreme conditions affect life and molecules associated with it. Extremophilic organisms have adapted to the most stunning conditions on Earth in environments with often unique geological and chemical features. One challenge in detecting biomarkers is to optimize extraction, since organic molecules can be low in abundance and can strongly adsorb to mineral surfaces. Methods and analytical tools in the field of life science are continuously improving. Amplification methods are very useful for the detection of low concentrations of genomic material but most other organic molecules are not prone to amplification methods. Therefore, a great deal depends on the extraction efficiency. The questions “what to look for”, “where to look”, and “how to look for it” require more of our attention to ensure the success of future life detection missions on Mars. View Full-Text
Keywords: biomarkers; Mars; minerals; adsorption; extreme environments; life detection; extraction techniques; origin of life biomarkers; Mars; minerals; adsorption; extreme environments; life detection; extraction techniques; origin of life
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This is an open access article distributed under the Creative Commons Attribution License which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited. (CC BY 4.0).

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MDPI and ACS Style

Aerts, J.W.; Röling, W.F.; Elsaesser, A.; Ehrenfreund, P. Biota and Biomolecules in Extreme Environments on Earth: Implications for Life Detection on Mars. Life 2014, 4, 535-565.

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