Experimental silicification of the extremophilic Archaea Pyrococcus abyssi and Methanocaldococcus jannaschii: applications in the search for evidence of life in early Earth and extraterrestrial rocks


F. Westall. Tel.: +33 238 25 7912; fax: +33 238 63 1517; e-mail: westall@cnrs-orleans.fr


Hydrothermal activity was common on the early Earth and associated micro-organisms would most likely have included thermophilic to hyperthermophilic species. 3.5–3.3 billion-year-old, hydrothermally influenced rocks contain silicified microbial mats and colonies that must have been bathed in warm to hot hydrothermal emanations. Could they represent thermophilic or hyperthermophilic micro-organisms and if so, how were they preserved? We present the results of an experiment to silicify anaerobic, hyperthermophilic micro-organisms from the Archaea Domain Pyrococcus abyssi and Methanocaldococcus jannaschii, that could have lived on the early Earth. The micro-organisms were placed in a silica-saturated medium for periods up to 1 year. Pyrococcus abyssi cells were fossilized but the M. jannaschii cells lysed naturally after the exponential growth phase, apart from a few cells and cell remains, and were not silicified although their extracellular polymeric substances were. In this first simulated fossilization of archaeal strains, our results suggest that differences between species have a strong influence on the potential for different micro-organisms to be preserved by fossilization and that those found in the fossil record represent probably only a part of the original diversity. Our results have important consequences for biosignatures in hydrothermal or hydrothermally influenced deposits on Earth, as well as on early Mars, as environmental conditions were similar on the young terrestrial planets and traces of early Martian life may have been similarly preserved as silicified microfossils.