The Martian subsurface as a potential window into the origin of life

Joseph Michalski, Tullis Onstott, Stephen Mojzsis, John Mustard, Queenie Hoi Shan Chan, Paul Niles, Sarah Stewart Johnson

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Few traces of Earth’s geologic record are preserved from the time of life’s emergence, over 3,800 million years ago. Consequently, what little we understand about abiogenesis — the origin of life on Earth — is based primarily on laboratory experiments and theory. The best geological lens for understanding early Earth might actually come from Mars, a planet with a crust that’s overall far more ancient than our own. On Earth, surface sedimentary environments are thought to best preserve evidence of ancient life, but this is mostly because our planet has been dominated by high photosynthetic biomass production at the surface for the last ~2,500 million years or more. By the time oxygenic photosynthesis evolved on Earth, Mars had been a hyperarid, frozen desert with a surface bombarded by high-energy solar and cosmic radiation for more than a billion years, and as a result, photosynthetic surface life may never have occurred on Mars. Therefore, one must question whether searching for evidence of life in Martian surface sediments is the best strategy. This Perspective explores the possibility that the abundant hydrothermal environments on Mars might provide more valuable insights into life’s origins.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)21-26
Number of pages6
JournalNature Geoscience
Publication statusPublished - 18 Dec 2017

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