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Keywords:

  • continental evaporites;
  • microbial halophiles;
  • astrobiology;
  • Mars sample return

Continental evaporites are deposits that originate from the evaporation of saline waters in the low areas of saline lakes from all continents, except Europe, and mainly consist of chloride, sulphate and potash minerals. In recent years, the discovery on the Martian surface of hydrated salt minerals, including sulphates and chlorides, interpreted as deriving from the desiccation of preexisting large bodies of water, such as lakes, has provided further convincing evidence of liquid water activity on the surface of Mars and, consequently, it has reinforced the plausibility of finding life. Because evaporites require short-term aqueous processes for their formation, they can trap and preserve over geologic times a biological record made up of halophilic extremophiles—such as microalgae, bacteria, and their remains—that recent research on Earth has shown to be characterized by unexpectedly high biodiversity. This record may consist of varying types of fossils, including morphological fossils, chemofossils and biominerals. As a consequence, continental evaporite environments and their saline deposits are now a primary target for the near future astrobiology missions devoted to the search for fossil Martian life. Lacustrine evaporite deposits and minerals have, therefore, been identified as primary targets for the NASA–ESA joint programme of the Mars sample return, planned for the end of the current decade. Copyright © 2011 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.