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Title: Life on the Edge: Microbes in Rock Varnish

Abstract

The newly discovered high concentrations of manganese on Mars open up new possibilities for habitability on that planet [1, 2]. On Earth, there is a close association between Mn deposits and the presence of Mn- and Fe- oxidizing microbes [3-7]; as such, Mn is considered a principal biosignature for Mars [8]. The most common terrestrial Mn-rich surface material on Earth is desert varnish, a dark, shiny coating on rocks in arid locations. Microorganisms occupy various niches within rock varnish, and it is probable that the concentration of Mn in many rock varnishes is mediated by microbial activity [6, 9, 10]; however, the relationship between microbes and varnish remains a source of long-standing controversy [11]. Do microorganisms drive the formation of varnish, oxidizing Mn and Fe to gain energy, or do they instead utilize varnish as a habitat? This long-standing question has important implications for our understanding of how life on Earth has evolved to capture and harness energy from the physical environment. Additionally, it will greatly influence the search on Mars for the signatures of life that may be present in rock varnish cannot be definitively identified on Mars without first being identified on Earth. Here we explored the microbialmore » species and processes involved in the habitation of rock varnish and identified organic biosignatures that, in concert with trace element and mineralogy, could be used to distinguish the biogenic and abiogenic origins of terrestrial Mn-rich surfaces so that we may then apply the knowledge gained in this work to current Martian datasets from ChemCam. Each of these goals has important implications for our understanding of how life on Earth has evolved to capture and harness energy from the physical environment. A combinatorial experimental approach, utilizing microscopy, high-throughput DNA sequencing, culturing and physiological assays, were used to characterize the microbial communities inhabiting varnished rocks across the Western U.S. Microbial communities inhabiting varnish were shaped by both location (larger contribution) and rock type. However, we found that the unique varnish environment selects for a core group of radiation- and desiccation-tolerant microorganisms across landscapes and rock types. The bacteria comprising this core group include a who’s who of radiation resistant organisms including Rubrobacter spp., Deinococcus spp., Hymenobaceter spp., and Chroococcidiopsis spp. Among the fungi, potential lichen-forming members of the Lecanoromycetes and rock-inhabiting Dothideomycetes were common. Importantly, we found that two of the survival mechanisms employed by these microorganisms are likely key drivers of Mn oxide formation and the biogenesis of varnish. First, we showed that the key cyanobacteria inhabiting the varnish accumulate copious amounts of low molecular weight Mn2+-conjugates, that are critical for their ability to withstand the toxic effects of reactive oxygen species generated upon radiation exposure. Secondly, the microbial community inhabiting varnished rocks were found to be particularly adept at producing siderophores, which are high-affinity chelating compounds secreted by bacteria and fungi that serve to sequester Fe2+ (and Mn2+) from oxidizing environments for transport into cells as essential micronutrients for growth and survival. When tightly bound to organic ligands, Mn2+ is susceptible to oxidation to Mn3+-ligand under atmospheric oxygen and at slightly basic pH levels. Further, Mn3+-ligand can be oxidized to MnO2 (manganese oxide) when it comes into contact with reactive oxygen species (e.g., superoxide radical) formed during the photolysis of water during periods of high UV exposure. The data points towards a scenario whereby cyanobacterial biofilms, and associated radiation resistant, heterotrophic bacteria, comprise the central hub of the varnish community. These communities depend on light and water to slowly establish on the rock surface where they accumulate and concentrate Mn for survival. When the biofilms dry out, mineral rinds rich in Mn oxides form which serve as a habitat for the successive rounds of microbial growth and Mn oxide formation. Copious production and excretion of siderophores, which are extremely stable in the environment, coats the rock surface with a longlived catalyst for Mn oxidation. By discovering these two completely novel mechanisms for biogenic varnish formation, we have gained the underlying knowledge necessary to develop a suite of organic and inorganic biosignatures to distinguish biogenic and abiogenic origins of Mnrich surfaces on Earth or Mars.« less

Authors:
ORCiD logo [1]
  1. Los Alamos National Lab. (LANL), Los Alamos, NM (United States)
Publication Date:
Research Org.:
Los Alamos National Lab. (LANL), Los Alamos, NM (United States)
Sponsoring Org.:
USDOE Laboratory Directed Research and Development (LDRD) Program
OSTI Identifier:
1570605
Report Number(s):
LA-UR-19-30329
DOE Contract Number:  
89233218CNA000001
Resource Type:
Technical Report
Country of Publication:
United States
Language:
English
Subject:
Earth Sciences

Citation Formats

Yeager, Chris Michael. Life on the Edge: Microbes in Rock Varnish. United States: N. p., 2019. Web. doi:10.2172/1570605.
Yeager, Chris Michael. Life on the Edge: Microbes in Rock Varnish. United States. doi:10.2172/1570605.
Yeager, Chris Michael. Fri . "Life on the Edge: Microbes in Rock Varnish". United States. doi:10.2172/1570605. https://www.osti.gov/servlets/purl/1570605.
@article{osti_1570605,
title = {Life on the Edge: Microbes in Rock Varnish},
author = {Yeager, Chris Michael},
abstractNote = {The newly discovered high concentrations of manganese on Mars open up new possibilities for habitability on that planet [1, 2]. On Earth, there is a close association between Mn deposits and the presence of Mn- and Fe- oxidizing microbes [3-7]; as such, Mn is considered a principal biosignature for Mars [8]. The most common terrestrial Mn-rich surface material on Earth is desert varnish, a dark, shiny coating on rocks in arid locations. Microorganisms occupy various niches within rock varnish, and it is probable that the concentration of Mn in many rock varnishes is mediated by microbial activity [6, 9, 10]; however, the relationship between microbes and varnish remains a source of long-standing controversy [11]. Do microorganisms drive the formation of varnish, oxidizing Mn and Fe to gain energy, or do they instead utilize varnish as a habitat? This long-standing question has important implications for our understanding of how life on Earth has evolved to capture and harness energy from the physical environment. Additionally, it will greatly influence the search on Mars for the signatures of life that may be present in rock varnish cannot be definitively identified on Mars without first being identified on Earth. Here we explored the microbial species and processes involved in the habitation of rock varnish and identified organic biosignatures that, in concert with trace element and mineralogy, could be used to distinguish the biogenic and abiogenic origins of terrestrial Mn-rich surfaces so that we may then apply the knowledge gained in this work to current Martian datasets from ChemCam. Each of these goals has important implications for our understanding of how life on Earth has evolved to capture and harness energy from the physical environment. A combinatorial experimental approach, utilizing microscopy, high-throughput DNA sequencing, culturing and physiological assays, were used to characterize the microbial communities inhabiting varnished rocks across the Western U.S. Microbial communities inhabiting varnish were shaped by both location (larger contribution) and rock type. However, we found that the unique varnish environment selects for a core group of radiation- and desiccation-tolerant microorganisms across landscapes and rock types. The bacteria comprising this core group include a who’s who of radiation resistant organisms including Rubrobacter spp., Deinococcus spp., Hymenobaceter spp., and Chroococcidiopsis spp. Among the fungi, potential lichen-forming members of the Lecanoromycetes and rock-inhabiting Dothideomycetes were common. Importantly, we found that two of the survival mechanisms employed by these microorganisms are likely key drivers of Mn oxide formation and the biogenesis of varnish. First, we showed that the key cyanobacteria inhabiting the varnish accumulate copious amounts of low molecular weight Mn2+-conjugates, that are critical for their ability to withstand the toxic effects of reactive oxygen species generated upon radiation exposure. Secondly, the microbial community inhabiting varnished rocks were found to be particularly adept at producing siderophores, which are high-affinity chelating compounds secreted by bacteria and fungi that serve to sequester Fe2+ (and Mn2+) from oxidizing environments for transport into cells as essential micronutrients for growth and survival. When tightly bound to organic ligands, Mn2+ is susceptible to oxidation to Mn3+-ligand under atmospheric oxygen and at slightly basic pH levels. Further, Mn3+-ligand can be oxidized to MnO2 (manganese oxide) when it comes into contact with reactive oxygen species (e.g., superoxide radical) formed during the photolysis of water during periods of high UV exposure. The data points towards a scenario whereby cyanobacterial biofilms, and associated radiation resistant, heterotrophic bacteria, comprise the central hub of the varnish community. These communities depend on light and water to slowly establish on the rock surface where they accumulate and concentrate Mn for survival. When the biofilms dry out, mineral rinds rich in Mn oxides form which serve as a habitat for the successive rounds of microbial growth and Mn oxide formation. Copious production and excretion of siderophores, which are extremely stable in the environment, coats the rock surface with a longlived catalyst for Mn oxidation. By discovering these two completely novel mechanisms for biogenic varnish formation, we have gained the underlying knowledge necessary to develop a suite of organic and inorganic biosignatures to distinguish biogenic and abiogenic origins of Mnrich surfaces on Earth or Mars.},
doi = {10.2172/1570605},
journal = {},
number = ,
volume = ,
place = {United States},
year = {2019},
month = {10}
}

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