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Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
Vol. 102, No: 51, 2005, Pages: 18292 - 6

Microbial origin of excess methane in glacial ice and implications for life on Mars

Tung HC, Bramall NE, Price PB

Department of Environmental Science, Policy, and Management, University of California, Berkeley, CA 94720, USA.


Methane trapped in the 3,053-m-deep Greenland Ice Sheet Project 2 ice core provides an important record of millennial-scale climate change over the last 110,000 yr. However, at several depths in the lowest 90 m of the ice core, the methane concentration is up to an order of magnitude higher than at other depths. At those depths we have discovered methanogenic archaea, the in situ metabolism of which accounts for the excess methane. The total concentration of all types of microbes we measured with direct counts of Syto-23-stained cells tracks the excess of methanogens that we identified by their F420 autofluorescence and provides independent evidence for anomalous layers. The metabolic rate we estimated for microbes at those depths is consistent with the Arrhenius relation for rates found earlier for microbes imprisoned in rock, sediment, and ice. It is roughly the same as the rate of spontaneous macromolecular damage inferred from laboratory data, suggesting that microbes imprisoned in ice expend metabolic energy mainly to repair damage to DNA and amino acids rather than to grow. Equating the loss rate of methane recently discovered in the Martian atmosphere to the production rate by possible methanogens, we estimate that a possible Martian habitat would be at a temperature of approximately 0 degrees C and that the concentration, if uniformly distributed in a 10-m-thick layer, would be approximately 1 cell per ml.

Keywords:methanogenic archaea,macromolecular damage inferred from laboratory data, microbes imprisoned in rock, sediment.


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