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Mashed minerals on Mars might be a habital home for microbes

The key to finding life on other planets is water. Right? Unless maybe it was earthquakes? While we don’t normally associate seismic activity with sources of nourishment, researchers have found that rocks smashing into each other can produce fuel for living things, albeit not things like us that like carbohydrates. While the hunt continues for any and all signs of water on places like Mars, we may also want to start digging deeper into the potential ecosystems created by marsquakes.

Any time you have rocks grinding together with sufficient force and pressure, you might end up with veins of pseudotachylites. Pseudotachylites are basically the hardened slurry of the molten mush that gets made as rocks are crunched and rubbed together, such as underground during an earthquake. As the rocks break apart on each other, some are ground to finer grained good that hardens almost to a glass-like structure, while other, heavier chunks get suspended throughout the mixture, with the biggest pieces of rock just sinking to the bottom. Once the seismic activity calms down, the pseudotachylites cool, often looking like dark marbling between lighter stones.

Hunger for hydrogen

If none of this sounds especially tasty, that’s because you’re not hydrogen oxidizing bacteria. Recent research has found that another key byproduct of the kind of activity that produces pseudotachylites is hydrogen in the form of H2 gas. Bacteria can capture energy from hydrogen by cycling protons through the molecule, substituting for the way we break apart sugars to grab energy stored in molecular bonds. Based on what we see on Earth, Martian seismic activity could conceivably be home to the first Martians. Without major mining operations to dig into the Red Planet, our best bet would be to examine the rocks and minerals that have been exposed to the planet’s surface near faults and/or erosion.

The big catch is that Mars isn’t thought to be as seismically active as Earth, which would create fewer opportunities for pseudotachylite buffets underground. The 2018 Mars InSight mission should help us figure out just how much things have been shifting and crunching, but right now there’s not a strong expectation to find active faults teeming with microbes.

Source: Earthquakes, ‘Marsquakes,’ and the possibility of life by Jim Shelton, YaleNews

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