Deep Italian cave may help detect life on Mars

Scientists have discovered signs of life in a massive cave in Italy that is located about 1300 feet below the ground. The discovery may help detect life on other planets.

The identification was made by researchers from the Pennsylvania State University while exploring the microbiology and geochemistry of the Frasassi Caves in central Italy.

The study was published in the journal, Astrobiology.

The Discovery

• The scientists found variations in the isotopic content of atoms in the mineral gypsum, which is a weathering product of the cave's formation.

• The study stated that not all gypsum is formed by microbes, but gypsum formed by microbes will have a different ratio of isotopes in the atoms.

• This isotopic variation, in combination with other data, indicates that life played an active role in producing the gypsum.

• Microbes or microorganisms are known to speed up chemical reactions. For example, minerals like the gypsum found in the cave form much more quickly in the presence of microbes.

Speaking on development, Jenn Macalady, associate professor at Pennsylvania State University said, "Using this cave environment, we provide a real-life field example of how we can detect life, past or present, on other planets.”


Key Highlights

• The research team collected samples of gypsum from the cave walls that were likely to have come in contact with fluids or moving air and used a mass spectrometer to study the isotopic ratio of the gypsum.

• As microbes speed up chemical changes, Macalady said that the presence of isotopic biosignatures could be used to spot the involvement of life forms in forming other minerals, not just those appearing in the Frasassi Caves.

• The structure of the deep Frasassi Caves offers a real-world laboratory setting for identifying current and remnant biosignatures.

How is this discovery linked to life on Mars?

• The red planet or Mars has caves formed by volcanic activity, which offer a hospitable underground environment for microbes to cling to.

• The planet also has fluids like carbon dioxide and water.

• These fluids could allow microbes to interact with minerals, speeding up chemical reactions like what was found in the Frasassi Caves.

• If a similar environment was found on Mars, the scientists could use the recently discovered biosignature to test for the current or past presence of life on the planet.

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