Authors: Chance Sturrup, Amy Williams, Mary Rogers
Faculty Mentor: Dr. Amy Williams
College: College of Liberal Arts and Sciences
Discovering whether past or present life exists on Mars is one of the most gripping questions of modern astrobiology. The distance between Mars and Earth results in the need for specialized instruments to address this question on Mars missions. One such instrument utilizes pyrolysis gas chromatography mass spectrometry (pyro-GC-MS) to detect organic molecules preserved within the rock record. Both the NASA Curiosity and ESA ExoMars rovers have the ability to perform these experiments using their onboard instruments. These experiments can be simulated on Earth by using acid-saline Mars analog samples acquired from acid mine drainage (AMD) sites. By exploring the preservation of organic matter from extremophiles in AMD, we can explore organic molecule preservation in select acid-saline environments on Mars. The terrestrial site chosen for research was the Centralia AMD site in Pennsylvania, which serves as an effective analog for the Burns formation on Mars. These experiments target alkanes and fatty acids since they are important components of microbial cells. Preliminary data obtained from fatty acid analysis indicates that these molecules can be effectively detected in acid and neutral pH AMD with pyro-GC-MS, and ongoing research will explore the effect of pH and solvent washing of samples on organics preservation.