Biomolecules from fossilized hot spring sinters: Implications for the search for life on mars

Bronwyn L. Teece, Simon C. George, Tara Djokic, Kathleen A. Campbell, Steven W. Ruff, Martin J. Van Kranendonk

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

22 Scopus citations


Hot spring environments are commonly dominated by silica sinters that precipitate by the rapid cooling of silica-saturated fluids and the activity of microbial communities. However, the potential for preservation of organic traces of life in silica sinters back through time is not well understood. This is important for the exploration of early life on Earth and possibly Mars. Most previous studies have focused on physical preservation in samples <900 years old, with only a few focused on organic biomarkers. In this study, we investigate the organic geochemistry of hot spring samples from El Tatio, Chile and the Taupo Volcanic Zone, with ages varying from modern to ∼9.4 ka. Results show that all samples contain opaline silica and contain hydrocarbons that are indicative of a cyanobacterial origin. A ∼3 ka recrystallized, quartz-bearing sample also contains traces of cyanobacterial biomarkers. No aromatic compounds were detected in a ∼9.4 ka opal-A sample or in a modern sinter breccia sample. All other samples contain naphthalene, with one sample also containing other polyaromatic hydrocarbons. These aromatic hydrocarbons have a thermally mature distribution that is perhaps reflective of geothermal fluids migrating from deep, rather than surface, reservoirs. These data show that hot spring sinters can preserve biomolecules from the local microbial community, and that crystallinity rather than age may be the determining factor in their preservation. This research provides support for the exploration for biomolecules in opaline silica deposits on Mars.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)537-551
Number of pages15
Issue number4
StatePublished - Apr 2020


  • Biomarkers
  • Cyanobacteria
  • Hot springs
  • Sinter

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Agricultural and Biological Sciences (miscellaneous)
  • Space and Planetary Science


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