Antarctic ecosystems as models for extraterrestrial surface habitats
Surface habitats in Antarctic deserts are near the limits of life on Earth and resemble those hypothesized for early Mars. Cyanobacteria dominate the transient riverbeds, stromatolitic sediments in ice-covered lakes, and endolithic communities in translucent rock. There is still no direct evidence of photosynthetic life on early Mars, but cyanobacteria are amongst the earliest microbes detectable in the fossil record for analogous habitats on Earth. Key biomolecules persist in Antarctic microbial habitats, even after extinction by excessive low temperatures, desiccation and UV-B stress within the Ozone Hole. Pigments (or their fossil residues), such as chlorophyll and the UV-protectants scytonemin, carotene and quinones, are good biomarkers. To show not only their presence but also their micro-spatial distribution in situ, we describe the use of FT–Raman spectroscopy with 1064 nm excitation to avoid autofluorescence from the pigments. We report not only the diversity of biomolecules that we have diagnosed from their unique Raman spectra of Antarctic cyanobacterial communities, but also their functional stratification in endolithic communities. Our analyses of Antarctic habitats show the potential of this remote, non-intrusive technique to probe for buried biomolecules on future Mars missions and in Antarctic Lake Vostok, > 4 km beneath the Central Ice Sheet, with implications for the putative analogous sub-ice ocean on Europa.