Could methane in meteorites feed life on Mars?

Researchers say it's possible that methane could be used as a food source by rudimentary forms of life beneath the Martian surface. On Earth, microbes do this in a range of environments. (Credit: Michael S. Helfenbein)

Traces of methane have been discovered in Martian meteorites, causing researchers to speculate if that methane could feed microbe-like creatures on the Red Planet.

Scientists examined samples from six meteorites of volcanic rock from Mars that contain gases in the same proportion and with the same isotopic composition as the Martian atmosphere.

All six samples also contained methane, which was measured by crushing the rocks and running the emerging gas through a mass spectrometer. Researchers also examined two non-Martian meteorites, which contained lesser amounts of methane.

Food source?

The discovery hints at the possibility that methane could be used as a food source by rudimentary forms of life beneath the Martian surface. On Earth, microbes do this in a range of environments.

“Other researchers will be keen to replicate these findings using alternative measurement tools and techniques,” says coauthor Sean McMahon, a postdoctoral associate in the geology and geophysics department at Yale University.

“Our findings will likely be used by astrobiologists in models and experiments aimed at understanding whether life could survive below the surface of Mars today.”

The discovery, reported in the journal Nature Communications, is part of a joint research project led by the University of Aberdeen, in collaboration with the Scottish Universities Environmental Research Centre, the University of Glasgow, Brock University in Ontario, and the University of Western Ontario.

Is it really there?

“One of the most exciting developments in the exploration of Mars has been the suggestion of methane in the Martian atmosphere,” says John Parnell, a professor at the University of Aberdeen who directed the research.

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“Recent and forthcoming missions by NASA and the European Space Agency, respectively, are looking at this. However, it is so far unclear where the methane comes from, and even whether it is really there. However, our research provides a strong indication that rocks on Mars contain a large reservoir of methane.”

The team plans to expand its research by analyzing additional meteorites, says Nigel Blamey of Brock University.

The team’s approach may prove helpful in future Mars rover experiments, McMahon says. “Even if Martian methane does not directly feed microbes, it may signal the presence of a warm, wet, chemically reactive environment where life could thrive.”

Source: Yale University