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Deciphering biosignatures in planetary contexts

Deciphering biosignatures in planetary contexts
Deciphering biosignatures in planetary contexts

Microbial life permeates Earth's critical zone and has likely inhabited nearly all our planet's surface and near subsurface since before the beginning of the sedimentary rock record. Given the vast time that Earth has been teeming with life, do astrobiologists truly understand what geological features untouched by biological processes would look like? In the search for extraterrestrial life in the Universe, it is critical to determine what constitutes a biosignature across multiple scales, and how this compares with "abiosignatures" formed by nonliving processes. Developing standards for abiotic and biotic characteristics would provide quantitative metrics for comparison across different data types and observational time frames. The evidence for life detection falls into three categories of biosignatures: (1) substances, such as elemental abundances, isotopes, molecules, allotropes, enantiomers, minerals, and their associated properties; (2) objects that are physical features such as mats, fossils including trace-fossils and microbialites (stromatolites), and concretions; and (3) patterns, such as physical three-dimensional or conceptual n-dimensional relationships of physical or chemical phenomena, including patterns of intermolecular abundances of organic homologues, and patterns of stable isotopic abundances between and within compounds. Five key challenges that warrant future exploration by the astrobiology community include the following: (1) examining phenomena at the "right" spatial scales because biosignatures may elude us if not examined with the appropriate instrumentation or modeling approach at that specific scale; (2) identifying the precise context across multiple spatial and temporal scales to understand how tangible biosignatures may or may not be preserved; (3) increasing capability to mine big data sets to reveal relationships, for example, how Earth's mineral diversity may have evolved in conjunction with life; (4) leveraging cyberinfrastructure for data management of biosignature types, characteristics, and classifications; and (5) using three-dimensional to n-D representations of biotic and abiotic models overlain on multiple overlapping spatial and temporal relationships to provide new insights.

Astrobiology, Biosignatures, Extraterrestrial life, Extremophile., Taphonomy
1531-1074
1075-1102
Chan, Marjorie A.
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Hinman, Nancy W.
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Potter-Mcintyre, Sally L.
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Schubert, Keith E.
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Gillams, Richard J.
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Awramik, Stanley M.
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Boston, Penelope J.
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Bower, Dina M.
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Des Marais, David J.
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Farmer, Jack D.
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Jia, Tony Z.
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King, Penelope L.
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Hazen, Robert M.
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Léveillé, Richard J.
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Papineau, Dominic
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Rempfert, Kaitlin R.
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Sánchez-Román, Mónica
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Spear, John R.
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Southam, Gordon
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Stern, Jennifer C.
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Cleaves, Henderson James
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Chan, Marjorie A.
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Hinman, Nancy W.
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Potter-Mcintyre, Sally L.
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Schubert, Keith E.
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Gillams, Richard J.
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Awramik, Stanley M.
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Boston, Penelope J.
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Bower, Dina M.
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Des Marais, David J.
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Farmer, Jack D.
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Jia, Tony Z.
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King, Penelope L.
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Hazen, Robert M.
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Léveillé, Richard J.
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Papineau, Dominic
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Rempfert, Kaitlin R.
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Sánchez-Román, Mónica
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Spear, John R.
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Southam, Gordon
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Stern, Jennifer C.
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Cleaves, Henderson James
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Chan, Marjorie A., Hinman, Nancy W., Potter-Mcintyre, Sally L., Schubert, Keith E., Gillams, Richard J., Awramik, Stanley M., Boston, Penelope J., Bower, Dina M., Des Marais, David J., Farmer, Jack D., Jia, Tony Z., King, Penelope L., Hazen, Robert M., Léveillé, Richard J., Papineau, Dominic, Rempfert, Kaitlin R., Sánchez-Román, Mónica, Spear, John R., Southam, Gordon, Stern, Jennifer C. and Cleaves, Henderson James (2019) Deciphering biosignatures in planetary contexts. Astrobiology, 19 (9), 1075-1102. (doi:10.1089/ast.2018.1903).

Record type: Article

Abstract

Microbial life permeates Earth's critical zone and has likely inhabited nearly all our planet's surface and near subsurface since before the beginning of the sedimentary rock record. Given the vast time that Earth has been teeming with life, do astrobiologists truly understand what geological features untouched by biological processes would look like? In the search for extraterrestrial life in the Universe, it is critical to determine what constitutes a biosignature across multiple scales, and how this compares with "abiosignatures" formed by nonliving processes. Developing standards for abiotic and biotic characteristics would provide quantitative metrics for comparison across different data types and observational time frames. The evidence for life detection falls into three categories of biosignatures: (1) substances, such as elemental abundances, isotopes, molecules, allotropes, enantiomers, minerals, and their associated properties; (2) objects that are physical features such as mats, fossils including trace-fossils and microbialites (stromatolites), and concretions; and (3) patterns, such as physical three-dimensional or conceptual n-dimensional relationships of physical or chemical phenomena, including patterns of intermolecular abundances of organic homologues, and patterns of stable isotopic abundances between and within compounds. Five key challenges that warrant future exploration by the astrobiology community include the following: (1) examining phenomena at the "right" spatial scales because biosignatures may elude us if not examined with the appropriate instrumentation or modeling approach at that specific scale; (2) identifying the precise context across multiple spatial and temporal scales to understand how tangible biosignatures may or may not be preserved; (3) increasing capability to mine big data sets to reveal relationships, for example, how Earth's mineral diversity may have evolved in conjunction with life; (4) leveraging cyberinfrastructure for data management of biosignature types, characteristics, and classifications; and (5) using three-dimensional to n-D representations of biotic and abiotic models overlain on multiple overlapping spatial and temporal relationships to provide new insights.

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e-pub ahead of print date: 22 July 2019
Published date: 1 September 2019
Keywords: Astrobiology, Biosignatures, Extraterrestrial life, Extremophile., Taphonomy

Identifiers

Local EPrints ID: 436157
URI: http://eprints.soton.ac.uk/id/eprint/436157
ISSN: 1531-1074
PURE UUID: 1d09f2b5-5ccb-4ecc-b3cf-87ec937552f3
ORCID for Richard J. Gillams: ORCID iD orcid.org/0000-0002-8597-8723

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Date deposited: 29 Nov 2019 17:31
Last modified: 07 Oct 2020 02:15

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Contributors

Author: Marjorie A. Chan
Author: Nancy W. Hinman
Author: Sally L. Potter-Mcintyre
Author: Keith E. Schubert
Author: Richard J. Gillams ORCID iD
Author: Stanley M. Awramik
Author: Penelope J. Boston
Author: Dina M. Bower
Author: David J. Des Marais
Author: Jack D. Farmer
Author: Tony Z. Jia
Author: Penelope L. King
Author: Robert M. Hazen
Author: Richard J. Léveillé
Author: Dominic Papineau
Author: Kaitlin R. Rempfert
Author: Mónica Sánchez-Román
Author: John R. Spear
Author: Gordon Southam
Author: Jennifer C. Stern
Author: Henderson James Cleaves

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