Tracking ancient and modern microbial life in salt and brines of Boulby Mine (N Yorkshire) or: What to look out for on Mars

Jens Holtvoeth, Charles Cockell, Scott Perl, Gillian Taylor, Caroline Orr, Paul Dean, Ian Bull, David Naafs, Emma Meehan, Sean Paling

Research output: Contribution to conferencePoster

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Our study aims produce a biogeochemical fingerprint of fossil and living microbial organisms in salt and brines of the salt mine at Boulby by analysing lipid biomarkers (alkyl lipids, GDGTs) and DNA. Outcomes are expected to contribute insights into late Permian hydrology and paleoecology, extremophile ecology and astrobiology.

Biomarker distributions in the salt and, in particular, in backfilled desiccation cracks can provide information on the environmental conditions in and around the Zechstein Sea ~250 million years ago. The site represents a shallow proximal setting of the Zechstein Basin, with exposure of the evaporite surfaces during sea-level lowstand. The presence of biomarkers originating from both microbes and plants in the Boulby salt has already been demonstrated [1]. However, due to the sampling technique previously used, biomarkers deriving from the pure evaporite, the desiccation crack backfill material or in fact the modern tunnel wall surface could not be distinguished. We will therefore use a modified sampling technique to retrieve intact salt cores that will allow targeted sampling. The biomarker data will then help to interpret Raman spectroscopy data produced from the same material. Raman spectroscopy will be one of the tools aboard the next generation Mars rovers. Marsian evaporites are prime targets in the search for extra-terrestrial life since the last places where microbial life could have existed on Mars would have been the evaporating oceans.

Finally, identifying and fingerprinting microbes living in modern brines of the mine and on tunnel walls will both help to understand community adaptation to variable ion distributions and provide a control to detect contamination of the fossil material.
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPublished - 17 Jul 2023
EventMeeting of the British Organic Geochemical Society 2023 - University of Durham, Durham, United Kingdom
Duration: 17 Jul 202318 Jul 2023


ConferenceMeeting of the British Organic Geochemical Society 2023
Abbreviated titleBOGS 2023
Country/TerritoryUnited Kingdom


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