Searching for signs
Research in Newfoundland could offer clues to life on Mars
Dr. Penny Morrill, an assistant professor from the Department of Earth Sciences.
By Jeff Green
A contingent of scientists is using its search for small signs of life in the barren rock and waterways on Newfoundland’s west coast this summer to help guide the eventual search for subsurface life on Mars.
It is meticulous work but the end result could have far-reaching implications.
The team – made of researchers from Memorial University, the Carnegie Institution of Washington, East Carolina University and NASA – is spending time scouring through the Tablelands in Gros Morne National Park.
They’re searching for microbial life to give them clues of what existence would be like on Mars – present-day or sometime in the past.
They chose the west coast region because the rock is some of the most distinct in the world and similar to what scientists believe to be on Mars.
The area they’re concentrating on is one of a handful of what are known as Mars analogue sites in Canada – and the only one in this province – which is giving experts an opportunity to approximate the geological, environmental and biological conditions on Mars.
“Planetary and space exploration is thriving and Canada is playing a leading role in this initiative,” said Dr. Penny Morrill, an assistant professor from the Department of Earth Sciences and the principal investigator on the project.
She pointed to the recent exploration work of astronauts Julie Payette and Robert Thirsk, who are part of the current space mission aboard the International Space Station.
Dr. Morrill said another home-grown contribution to space exploration is the more than 11 Canadian planetary analogue sites – including the one she’s searching this summer – which are giving scientists valuable clues of life beyond Earth.
“Through the exploration of other planets and moons, humans are attempting to answer fundamental questions about life detection and the origins of life on Earth and the Solar System,” she noted. “We use the only known planet where life exists – the Earth – to interpret the data collected from other planets and moons.”
Her study will attempt to figure out whether or not there are any measurable indicators of past or present life within the unique rocks on Newfoundland’s west coast.
In particular they’re interested in sites where a chemical reaction known as serpentinization would have taken place. That’s a reaction between groundwater and a special kind of rock called peridotite which is rich in iron and magnesium. It originates from the Earth’s mantle.
“This type of rock is observed mainly on the ocean floor. However, there are a few rare continental locations where present-day serpentinization is occurring, and the Tablelands in Gros Morne National Park is one such location. It is of interest because peridotite is also found on Mars,” noted Dr. Morrill, who is also a NASA Astrobiology Institute (NAI) collaborator.
“The serpentinization reaction produces hydrogen gas and groundwater with high pH values similar to that of household bleach. Hydrogen gas is very energy rich for microorganisms, but not every microorganism can live in these high pH conditions.”
Finding rocks from the Earth’s mantle on a continent is rare so the team of scientists jumped at the opportunity to comb Tablelands region.
“In the case of Newfoundland, approximately 500 million years ago the ancient Iapetus Ocean began to close due to a process known as plate tectonics,” said explained. “During this process rocks from the mantle were emplaced on the continental crust now known as western Newfoundland.
“During the last glaciation period fresh unaltered rock has been exposed to groundwater and this provided the starting materials for serpentinization.”
Dr. Morrill said thanks to funding from both the Canadian Space Agency’s Canadian Analogue Research Network program, and the Natural Sciences and the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) of Canada, she and her team have been able to spend considerable time in the region, searching for small signs of life which – she added – will aid the search for signs of life on Mars.
“I am specifically interested in gases produced by microorganisms such as methane, and chemical and isotopic signatures of biological reactions,” she noted. “Methane has been detected in the Martian atmosphere, but it is not known how the methane was formed.
“Preliminary data showed that there was a great deal of microbial life living in the high pH springs of the Tablelands,” Dr. Morrill added. “The next step is to identify what microorganisms can survive in these conditions and determine how they harness their energy for growth and survive in high pH waters.”
Other members of research team this summer include Dr. Andrew Steel, a senior scientist at the Carnegie Institution of Washington; Dr. Dina Bower, a NASA Astrobiology Institute postdoctoral fellow; Natalie Szponar, a master’s of science student and Jasmine Power, an undergraduate student, from Memorial’s Department of Earth Sciences; and Dr. Matthew Schrenk, an assistant professor and Quinn Woodruff, a master’s of science student, from the East Carolina University.