The only way is… down? Groundwater on Mars could support microbial life in the present day

Featured image: A person exploring the rocks of a cave on Earth, Pixabay.

Paper: Earth-like Habitable Environments in the Subsurface of Mars

Authors: J.D. Tarnas, J.F. Mustard, B. Sherwood Lollar, V. Stamenković, K.M. Cannon, J.-P. Lorand, T.C. Onstott, J.R. Michalski, O. Warr.

Mars exploration has been looking “up” recently: the Ingenuity helicopter performed the first powered flight on another planet, and veteran rover Curiosity gave us stunning images from the top of Mount Mercou. But if we want to look for life on Mars, it might be time for us to look down instead. New research suggests that life on present day Mars could be sustained by chemical energy produced through the interaction between water and rocks deep underground, like it is here on Earth.

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Hunting for Antibiotics in Caves

Featured Image courtesy Doronenko and Wikimedia Commons

Paper: High-Throughput Sequencing Analysis of the Actinobacterial Spatial Diversity in Moonmilk Deposits.

Authors: Marta Maciejewska , Magdalena Całusińska, Luc Cornet, Delphine Adam, Igor S. Pessi, Sandrine Malchair, Philippe Delfosse, Denis Baurain, Hazel A. Barton, Monique Carnol and Sébastien Rigali

Do you ever think about the microbes around you when you go caving? Me neither, but a team of scientists from Belgium did. 

Actinobacteria are found in many places around the world, including volcanic terrains and ice caves. They are of particular importance to cave ecosystems and structure since the formation of speleothems (cave formations) like moon milk is thought to be aided by Actinobacteria. These microbes are known for their ability to produce filaments and aid calcium carbonate deposition and precipitation, which could be important for the mineral deposition that forms speleothems. 

Moonmilk deposits from Bergmilchkammer cave (1862/20), courtesy Doronenko and Wikimedia Commons

Despite the importance of microbes in caves, our understanding of microbial communities and spatial distribution within a cave is still fairly limited, i.e. we still don’t know which microbes dominate cave formations and where they live. An international team of scientists set out to answer these questions using three speleothems in the Grotte des Collemboles (English: Springtails’ Cave) in Belgium. Using sterile scalpels, the team scraped soft moonmilk deposits from the walls of the cave into tubes to understand whether different speleothems in the same cave have different bacterial communities.

Using high-throughput DNA sequencing, they found that all the moonmilk deposits had over 700 species in common but distinct communities of bacteria. At least 10% of the species on a particular speleothem were unique to it, and they identified over 4,000 species in total. Actinobacteria was the second-most abundant group (after Proteobacteria) across deposits and many Actinobacterial groups like Nocardia, Pseudonocardia and Streptomyces were found at every speleothem.

Within Actinobacteria, the genus Streptomyces showed the highest diversity (19 species) across all sites even though they only comprised 3% of the actinobacterial community. Interestingly, the team could only grow 5 of these Streptomyces in the lab, which reinforces the significant obstacles to culturing microorganisms still faced by microbiologists.

Streptomyces coelicolor colonies, courtesy Norwich Research Park Image Library

Streptomyces are already a prodigious source of antibiotics and other biologically important compounds, but could these speleothem communities be a source of novel antibiotic compounds? The answer might be worth exploring, given the diversity of Streptomyces found in just this one cave but also the emerging roles of other Actinobacteria in antibiotic production.

The difficulty of growing in situ the bacteria we find in cave formations might complicate our ability to study the compounds they produce, but such adventures could still offer fascinating insights into the microbial inhabitants of caves and how they help bind mineral formations together. The next time you go caving, hopefully you’ll think about the Actinobacteria that surround you!

Creative Commons License

Hunting for Antibiotics in Caves by Janani Hariharan is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

Rivers underground

Featured Image: The River Styx emerging from Mammoth Cave by Daniel Schwen. From Wikipedia under a CC-BY-SA license.

Paper: Modeling cave cross‐section evolution including sediment transport and paragenesis
Authors: M.P. Cooper and M.D. Covington

It’s not easy to watch caves form. It happens slowly and out of view, so we know relatively little about cave passage erosion compared to our knowledge of how rivers at Earth’s surface work. New research suggests that the same physical erosion processes that cut river channels at the surface might also be at work underground, adding new depth to our understanding of cave genesis.

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Lava tubes on the Moon and Mars might be big and stable enough for humans to live in

Featured image: A hole with approximately 150 metres diameter, indicating a potential lava tube on Mars. Public Domain (NASA/JPL/University of Arizona).

Paper: Lava tubes on Earth, Moon and Mars: A review on their size and morphology revealed by comparative planetology

Authors: Francesco Sauro, Riccardo Pozzobon, Matteo Massironi, Pierluigi De Berardinis, Tommaso Santagata, Jo De Waele.

Editor’s note: due to an editorial mixup, two Geobites authors—unbeknownst to each other—wrote about the same paper. We encourage readers to take advantage of this opportunity to learn how two different geoscientists would describe the same exciting development in their field. The other post is here.

When you picture living on another planet, you probably don’t imagine living underground. But lava tubes – underground cave systems formed by flowing lava – are more sheltered from radiation and micrometeorites than the surface of the Moon or Mars. They are also more stable in temperature and could contain water ice. For these reasons both popular culture, such as the National Geographic Mars series, and scientists alike, have hypothesised that humans might live in them one day. Now, a new review and analysis study led by Francesco Sauro at the University of Bologna has sought to investigate potential lava tubes on both the Moon and Mars.

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