Decomposition of aqueous organic compounds in the Atacama Desert and in Martian soils



[1] Carbon-13 labeled formate, alanine, and glucose decompose when added in aqueous solution to soils collected from the “Mars-like” Yungay region (S 24° 4′ 9.6″, W 69° 51′) of the Atacama Desert. During the first 5 d of incubation, alanine (5 mM) and glucose (5 mM) solutions decomposed at rates of 0.1 to 0.2 μmol/d, and formate solution (50 mM) decomposed at rates of 0.4 to 1.6 μmol/d. The observation of approximately equal 13CO2 initial production rates by soils treated with D-glucose and L-alanine, compared to soils treated with L-glucose and D-alanine, indicates the presence of one or more nonbiological chemical decomposition mechanisms. An increase in the decomposition rates of D-glucose and L-alanine, compared to L-glucose and D-alanine ∼5 d after the addition of these organics, demonstrates that the soils are also biologically active. When treated with sodium formate solution, tested soils released 13CO2 gas in a manner that reproduces the initial gas release observed in the Mars Viking Labeled Release (LR) experiment. Our results indicate that the 13CO2 produced in Yungay soils is consistent with an initial phase of nonbiological decomposition followed by biological decomposition of added organics. Heat treatment of Yungay soils eliminated all CO2 production, while in the Viking LR experiment, the initial rapid CO2 release was eliminated by heat treatment, but a slower secondary CO2 production was not. Our results indicate that the mechanism for the decomposition of organics in Yungay soils is different from the processes observed in the Viking LR experiment.