Trace Element Concentrations Associated with Mid-Paleozoic Microfossils as Biosignatures to Aid in the Search for Life

Life (Basel). 2021 Feb 13;11(2):142. doi: 10.3390/life11020142.


Identifying microbial fossils in the rock record is a difficult task because they are often simple in morphology and can be mimicked by non-biological structures. Biosignatures are essential for identifying putative fossils as being definitively biological in origin, but are often lacking due to geologic effects which can obscure or erase such signs. As such, there is a need for robust biosignature identification techniques. Here we show new evidence for the application of trace elements as biosignatures in microfossils. We found elevated concentrations of magnesium, aluminum, manganese, iron, and strontium colocalized with carbon and sulfur in microfossils from Drummond Basin, a mid-Paleozoic hot spring deposit in Australia. Our results also suggest that trace element sequestrations from modern hot spring deposits persist through substantial host rock alteration. Because some of the oldest fossils on Earth are found in hot spring deposits and ancient hot spring deposits are also thought to occur on Mars, this biosignature technique may be utilized as a valuable tool to aid in the search for extraterrestrial life.

Keywords: biogeochemistry; biosignatures; hot springs; microfossils; trace elements.