Exciting stuff. If the only known way to get isotope imbalances like that is through biological processes, and the probe going to Mars in 2012 can detect imbalances three times smaller than what they found in the Earth crater, then I'm definitely keeping an eye on the Mars Science Laboratory rover.
|The footprint of life on Mars may have been plain to see all along in the sulphurous minerals that litter the planet's surface. What's more, the next Mars lander should be able to detect the evidence.|
No mission to Mars has ever found complex carbon-based molecules, from which life as we know it is built. But sulphur is everywhere on Mars - it is more abundant there than on Earth - and it could contain one of the signatures of life. On Earth, the activity of some microbes converts one class of sulphur-containing compounds, the sulphates, into another, the sulphides. The microbes prefer to work with the lighter sulphur-32 isotope, so the sulphides they produce are relatively deficient in the heavier isotope, sulphur-34. Planetary scientists have long wondered whether we could use this pattern to discern signs of life on Mars. Now the prospects for this technique look better than ever.
John Parnell of the University of Aberdeen, UK, and his colleagues found sulphides, apparently formed through microbial activity, permeating the rocks of Haughton crater in the Canadian Arctic (Geology, DOI: 10.1130/G30615.1). "It was amazing - it was everywhere," says Parnell, who pressed the case for investigating sulphur isotopes on Mars at the Lunar and Planetary Science Conference in Houston, Texas, last week.