Sulphur isotopes and the search for life: strategies for identifying sulphur metabolisms in the rock record and beyond


Corresponding author: D. T. Johnston. Tel.: 617-495-7602; fax: 617-495-8839; e-mail:


The search for life can only be as successful as our understanding of the tools we use to search for it. Here we present new sulphur isotope data (32S, 33S, 34S, 36S) from a variety of modern marine environments and use these observations, along with previously published work, to contribute to this search. Specifically, we use these new data to gain a sense of life's influences on the sulphur isotope record and to distinguish these biologically influenced signatures from their non-biological counterparts. This treatment extends sulphur isotope analyses beyond traditional (34S/32S) measures and employs trace isotope relationships (33S/32S, 36S/32S), as the inclusion of these isotopes provides unique information about biology and its role in the sulphur cycle through time. In the current study we compare and contrast isotope effects produced by sulphur-utilizing microorganisms (experimental), modern and ancient sedimentary records (observational) and non-biological reactions (theoretical). With our collective search for life now extending to neighbouring planets, we present this study as a first step towards more fully understanding the capability of the sulphur isotope system as a viable tool for life detection, both on Earth and beyond.