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Journal Articles Space Science Reviews Year : 2008

Stable Isotope Ratios as a Biomarker on Mars


As both Earth and Mars have had similar environmental conditions at least for some extended time early in their history (Jakosky and Phillips in Nature 412:237-244, 2001), the intriguing question arises whether life originated and evolved on Mars as it did on Earth (McKay and Stoker in Rev. Geophys. 27:189-214, 1989). Conceivably, early autotrophic life on Mars, like early life on Earth, used irreversible enzymatically enhanced metabolic processes that would have fractionated stable isotopes of the elements C, N, S, and Fe. Several important assumptions are made when such isotope fractionations are used as a biomarker. The purpose of this article is two-fold: (1) to discuss these assumptions for the case of carbon and to summarize new insights in abiologic reactions, and (2) to discuss the use of other stable isotope systems as a potential biomarker. It is concluded that isotopic biomarker studies on Mars will encounter several important obstacles. In the case of carbon isotopes, the most important obstacle is the absence of a contemporary abiologic carbon reservoir (such as carbonate deposits on Earth) to act as isotopic standard. The presence of a contemporary abiologic sulfate reservoir (evaporite deposits) suggests that sulfur isotopes can be used as a potential biomarker for sulfate-reducing bacteria. The best approach for tracing ancient life on Mars will be to combine several biomarker approaches; to search for complexity, and to combine small-scale isotopic variations with chemical, mineralogical, and morphological observations. An example of such a study can be a layer-specific correlation between δ 13C and δ 34S within an ancient Martian evaporite, which morphologically resembles the typical setting of a shallow marine microbial mat.

Dates and versions

insu-03603731 , version 1 (10-03-2022)



Mark van Zuilen. Stable Isotope Ratios as a Biomarker on Mars. Space Science Reviews, 2008, 135, pp.221-232. ⟨10.1007/s11214-007-9268-1⟩. ⟨insu-03603731⟩
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