Dubiofossils from a Mars-analogue subsurface palaeoenvironment: the limits of biogenicity criteria

Sean McMahon* (Corresponding Author), Magnus Ivarsson, David Wacey, Martin Saunders, David Muirhead, Veneta Belivanova, Pamela Knoll, Oliver Steinbock, Daniel A. Frost

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

9 Citations (Scopus)
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The search for a fossil record of Earth's deep biosphere, partly motivated by potential analogies with subsurface habitats on Mars, has uncovered numerous assemblages of inorganic microfilaments and tubules inside ancient pores and fractures. Although these enigmatic objects are morphologically similar to mineralized microorganisms (and some contain organic carbon), they also resemble some abiotic structures. Palaeobiologists have responded to this ambiguity by evaluating problematic filaments against checklists of “biogenicity criteria”. Here, we describe material that tests the limits of this approach. We sampled Jurassic calcite veins formed through subseafloor serpentinization, a water–rock reaction that can fuel the deep biosphere and is known to have occurred widely on Mars. At two localities ~4 km apart, veins contained curving, branched microfilaments composed of Mg‐silicate and Fe‐oxide minerals. Using a wide range of analytical techniques including synchrotron X‐ray microtomography and scanning transmission electron microscopy, we show that these features meet many published criteria for biogenicity and are comparable to fossilized cryptoendolithic fungi or bacteria. However, we argue that abiotic processes driven by serpentinization could account for the same set of lifelike features, and report a chemical garden experiment that supports this view. These filaments are, therefore, most objectively described as dubiofossils, a designation we here defend from criticism and recommend over alternative approaches, but which nevertheless signifies an impasse. Similar impasses can be anticipated in the future exploration of subsurface palaeo‐habitats on Earth and Mars. To avoid them, further studies are required in biomimetic geochemical self‐organization, microbial taphonomy and micro‐analytical techniques, with a focus on subsurface habitats.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)473-488
Number of pages16
Issue number5
Early online date5 May 2021
Publication statusPublished - 1 Sept 2021

Bibliographical note

S. M. acknowledges funding by the European Union's Horizon 2020 Research and Innovation Program under Marie Skłodowska-Curie grant agreement 747877. MI acknowledges funding from Swedish Research Council (Contract 2017-04129) and funding from the Paul Scherrer Institute, Villigen, Switzerland (20130185, 20141047) granted to Stefan Bengtson. DW acknowledges funding from the Australian Research Council via a Future Fellowship (FT140100321).
The authors acknowledge the facilities, and the scientific and technical assistance of Microscopy Australia at the Centre for Microscopy, Characterisation & Analysis, The University of Western Australia, a facility funded by the University, State and Commonwealth Governments. The chemical garden experiments were supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. 1609495 to O.S. Chemical garden SEM measurements were carried out at the Condensed Matter and Materials Physics User Facility of Florida State University. We thank Dr. Eric Lochner for sharing his technical expertise. We acknowledge the Paul Scherrer Institut, Villigen, Switzerland for provision of synchrotron radiation beamtime at the TOMCAT beamline X02DA of the Swiss Light Source and would like to thank Federica Marone for help at the beamline and SRXTM analyses. We thank three anonymous reviewers for their comments, which greatly improved the manuscript.
Funding information
Paul Scherrer Institut, Grant/Award Number: 20130185 and 20141047; Vetenskapsrådet, Grant/Award Number: 2017-04129; Australian Research Council, Grant/Award Number: FT140100321; H2020 Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions, Grant/Award Number: 747877; National Science Foundation, Grant/Award Number: 1609495


  • biogenicity
  • deep biosphere
  • Dubiofossi
  • Mars
  • pseudofossil
  • serpentinization


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