Evidence for life in the isotopic analysis of surface sulphates in the Haughton impact structure, and potential application on Mars

John Parnell*, Adrian J. Boyce, Gordon R. Osinski, Matthew R.M. Izawa, Neil Banerjee, Roberta Flemming, Pascal Lee

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

6 Citations (Scopus)


The analysis of sulphur isotopic compositions in three sets of surface sulphate samples from the soil zone in the Haughton impact structure shows that they are distinct. They include surface gypsum crusts remobilized from the pre-impact gypsum bedrock (mean δ 34S +31%), efflorescent copiapite and fibroferrite associated with hydrothermal marcasite (mean δ 34S-37%), and gypsum-iron oxide crusts representing weathering of pyritic crater-fill sediments (mean δ 34S +7%). Their different compositions reflect different histories of sulphur cycling. Two of the three sulphates have isotopically light (low δ 34S) compositions compared with the gypsum bedrock (mean δ 34S +31%), reflecting derivation by weathering of sulphides (three sets of pyrite/marcasite samples with mean δ 34S of-41,-20 and-8%), which had in turn been precipitated by microbial sulphate reduction. Thus, even in the absence of the parent sulphides due to surface oxidation, evidence of life would be preserved. This indicates that on Mars, where surface oxidation may rule out sampling of sulphides during robotic exploration, but where sulphates are widespread, sulphur isotope analysis is a valuable tool that could be sensitive to any near-surface microbial activity. Other causes of sulphur isotopic fractionation on the surface of Mars are feasible, but any anomalous fractionation would indicate the desirability of further analysis.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)93-101
Number of pages9
JournalInternational Journal of Astrobiology
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - Apr 2012

Bibliographical note

We are grateful to John Still, Barry Fulton, Colin Taylor, Alison Sandison and Alison McDonald for skilled technical help. This work was conducted in part under the auspices of the Haughton-Mars Project with support from NASA, Mars Institute, SETI Institute and the Canadian Space Agency. The arctic communities of Grise Fiord and Resolute Bay are also thanked. We are grateful to four anonymous reviewers who commented on earlier versions of the manuscript.


  • evidence for life
  • impact craters
  • Mars
  • sulphides
  • sulphur isotope fractionation


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