In so many ways, Don Juan Pond in the Dry Valleys of Antarctica is one of the most unearthly places on the planet. An ankle-deep mirror between mountain peaks and rubbled moraine, the pond is an astonishing 18 times saltier than the Earth's oceans and virtually never freezes, even in temperatures of more than 40 degrees below zero Fahrenheit
Now, a research team led by biogeochemists from the University of Georgia has discovered at the site a previously unreported chemical mechanism for the production of nitrous oxide, an important greenhouse gas. Possibly even more important, the discovery could help space scientists understand the meaning of similar brine pools in a place whose ecosystem most closely resembles that of Don Juan Pond: Mars.
The research, published April 25 in the journal Nature Geoscience, adds an intriguing new variable to growing evidence that there has been-and may still be-liquid water on Mars, a usual prerequisite for the formation of life. In fact, the new findings could help space scientists develop sensors for detecting such brines on Mars-thus narrowing the search for places where life may exist.
"The pond's soils and brines and the surrounding rock types are similar to those found on Mars," said Samantha Joye, a faculty member in the department of marine sciences in the Franklin College of Arts and Sciences and lead author on the paper.
"So it provides an ideal location to assess microbial activity in extreme environments. While we did not detect any 'bio-gases' such as hydrogen sulfide and methane, we did, surprisingly, measure high concentrations of nitrous oxide, which is normally an indicator of microbial activity. We needed to find out whether a non-organic process could account for this nitrous oxide production."
Other authors on the paper include Vladimir Samarkin, a research scientist, and Marshall Bowles, a graduate student, also of the department of marine sciences at UGA; Michael Madigan of Southern Illinois University; Karen Casciotti of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution; John Priscu of Montana State University; and Christopher McKay of the Ames Research Center of NASA.
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