Sampling for Biomarkers in the Atacama Desert

MB Atacama 1
MB Atacama 1

NASA Ames Pathway PhD Candidate, Mary Beth Wilhelm, conducted Mars analog field work in the Atacama Desert in Chile with Senior Research Scientist Dr. Alfonso Davila of the SETI Institute and Civil Servant Dr. Jennifer Eigenbrode of NASA Goddard. The team collected samples from the extreme hyper-arid core of the Atacama, which receives less than 2 mm of precipitation per decade and thus is completely devoid of plants and microbial activity. The project aims to understand how organics are preserved in extremely dry environments in the presence of oxidants over millions of years. The results from this project will have implications for the preservation of molecular biomarkers on the surface of Mars. Due to the exceptionally low concentration of organics in the soils, samples had to be collected using cleanroom suits, masks, goggles, and gloves to minimize human contamination (see pictures). Over 200 pounds of soils were collected and returned to the US in coolers and will be analyzed at the Jahnke Lab at NASA Ames, the Summons Geobiology and Astrobiology Lab at MIT, and the Planetary Environments Laboratory at NASA Goddard.

MB Atacama 3
MB Atacama 3