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Preserved filamentous microbial biosignatures in the Brick Flat gossan, Iron Mountain, California

August 1, 2015

A variety of actively precipitating mineral environments preserve morphological evidence of microbial biosignatures. One such environment with preserved microbial biosignatures is the oxidized portion of a massive sulfide deposit, or gossan, such as that at Iron Mountain, California. This gossan may serve as a mineralogical analogue to some ancient martian environments due to the presence of oxidized iron and sulfate species, and minerals that only form in acidic aqueous conditions, in both environments. Evaluating the potential biogenicity of cryptic textures in such martian gossans requires an understanding of how microbial textures form biosignatures on Earth. The iron-oxide-dominated composition and morphology of terrestrial, nonbranching filamentous microbial biosignatures may be distinctive of the underlying formation and preservation processes. The Iron Mountain gossan consists primarily of ferric oxide (hematite), hydrous ferric oxide (HFO, predominantly goethite), and jarosite group minerals, categorized into in situ gossan, and remobilized iron deposits. We interpret HFO filaments, found in both gossan types, as HFO-mineralized microbial filaments based in part on (1) the presence of preserved central filament lumina in smooth HFO mineral filaments that are likely molds of microbial filaments, (2) mineral filament formation in actively precipitating iron-oxide environments, (3) high degrees of mineral filament bending consistent with a flexible microbial filament template, and (4) the presence of bare microbial filaments on gossan rocks. Individual HFO filaments are below the resolution of the Mars Curiosity and Mars 2020 rover cameras, but sinuous filaments forming macroscopic matlike textures are resolvable. If present on Mars, available cameras may resolve these features identified as similar to terrestrial HFO filaments and allow subsequent evaluation for their biogenicity by synthesizing geochemical, mineralogical, and morphological analyses. Sinuous biogenic filaments could be preserved on Mars in an iron-rich environment analogous to Iron Mountain, with the Pahrump Hills region and Hematite Ridge in Gale Crater astentative possibilities.

Publication Year 2015
Title Preserved filamentous microbial biosignatures in the Brick Flat gossan, Iron Mountain, California
DOI 10.1089/ast.2014.1235
Authors Amy J. Williams, Dawn Y. Sumner, Charles N. Alpers, Suniti Karunatillake, Beda A Hofmann
Publication Type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Series Title Astrobiology
Index ID 70159890
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization California Water Science Center