Gypsum-permineralized microfossils and their relevance to the search for life on mars

J. William Schopf, Jack Farmer, Ian S. Foster, Anatoliy B. Kudryavtsev, Victor A. Gallardo, Carola Espinoza

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

58 Scopus citations


Orbital and in situ analyses establish that aerially extensive deposits of evaporitic sulfates, including gypsum, are present on the surface of Mars. Although comparable gypsiferous sediments on Earth have been largely ignored by paleontologists, we here report the finding of diverse fossil microscopic organisms permineralized in bottom-nucleated gypsums of seven deposits: two from the Permian (∼260 Ma) of New Mexico, USA; one from the Miocene (∼6 Ma) of Italy; and four from Recent lacustrine and saltern deposits of Australia, Mexico, and Peru. In addition to presenting the first report of the widespread occurrence of microscopic fossils in bottom-nucleated primary gypsum, we show the striking morphological similarity of the majority of the benthic filamentous fossils of these units to the microorganisms of a modern sulfuretum biocoenose. Based on such similarity, in morphology as well as habitat, these findings suggest that anaerobic sulfur-metabolizing microbial assemblages have changed relatively little over hundreds of millions of years. Their discovery as fossilized components of the seven gypsiferous units reported suggests that primary bottom-nucleated gypsum represents a promising target in the search for evidence of past life on Mars.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)619-633
Number of pages15
Issue number7
StatePublished - Jul 1 2012


  • Confocal laser scanning microscopy
  • Gypsum fossils
  • Mars sample return missions
  • Raman spectroscopy
  • Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) instrument
  • Sulfuretum

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Agricultural and Biological Sciences (miscellaneous)
  • Space and Planetary Science


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