Zones of photosynthetic potential on Mars and the early Earth

Ultraviolet radiation is more damaging on the surface of Mars than on Earth because of the lack of an ozone shield. We investigated micro-habitats in which UV radiation could be reduced to levels similar to those found on the surface of present-day Earth, but where light in the photosynthetically active region (400-700 nm) would be above the minimum required for photosynthesis. We used a simple radiative transfer model to study four micro-habitats in which such a theoretical Martian Earth-like Photosynthetic Zone (MEPZ) might exist. A favorable radiation environment was found in martian soils containing iron, encrustations of halite, polar snows and crystalline rocks shocked by asteroid or comet impacts, all of which are known habitats for phototrophs on Earth. Although liquid water and nutrients are also required for life, micro-environments with favorable radiation environments for phototrophic life exist in a diversity of materials on Mars. This finding suggests that the lack of an ozone shield is not in itself a limit to the biogeographically widespread colonization of land by photosynthetic organisms, even if there are no other UV-absorbers in the atmosphere apart from carbon dioxide. When applied to the Archean Earth, these data suggest that even with the worst-case assumptions about the UV radiation environment, early land masses could have been colonized by primitive photosynthetic organisms. Such zones could similarly exist on anoxic extra-solar planets lacking ozone shields.


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Authors: Cockell, Charles S., Raven, John A.

1 January, 2004
Icarus / 169
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