Readily available phosphate from minerals in early aqueous environments on Mars

Abstract

If the chemistry essential to life was present in water-containing environments on Mars, the processes that led to life on Earth may have also occurred on the red planet1. Phosphate is one of the chemical nutrients thought to be essential for life and is also considered critical to reactions that may have led to life on Earth2,3. However, low prebiotic availability of phosphate may have been a complicating factor in terrestrial abiogenesis2,4, suggesting that a similar hurdle may have confronted the development of life on Mars. Phosphate available for biological reactions can be introduced into aqueous environments through dissolution of primary phosphate minerals during water–rock interactions, but little is known about the dissolution of the dominant phosphate minerals found in martian meteorites and presumably on Mars5,6,7,8. Here we present dissolution rates, phosphate release rates and solubilities of phosphate minerals found in martian rocks as determined from laboratory measurements. Our experimental findings predict phosphate release rates during water–rock interactions on Mars that are as much as 45 times higher than on Earth and phosphate concentrations of early wet martian environments more than twice those of Earth. We suggest that available phosphate may have mitigated one of the hurdles to abiogenesis on Mars.

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Figure 1: Calcium release over time.
Figure 2: Mineral dissolution rates and phosphate release rates.
Figure 3: Calcium concentrations over time in solubility experiments.

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Acknowledgements

This material is based on work supported by NASA under grant no. NNX10AN23H issued through the NASA training grant National Space Grant College and Fellowship Program to E.M.H., a Nevada Space Grant Consortium fellowship to C.T.A., Mars Fundamental Research Program grant NNX10AP58G to E.M.H. and GSA research grant to C.T.A. The authors thank A. Simon, C. Tacker, D. Harlov, K. Sefein and D. Roohani for assistance in mineral synthesis. We also express our appreciation to E. Smith, H. Sun, O. Tschauner, V. Tu, S. Gainey and B. Myers for technical assistance and discussion, which improved this paper.

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E.M.H. conceived and supervised the project. C.T.A. and E.M.H. designed and carried out dissolution experiments. C.T.A. and P.M.F. synthesized and characterized minerals used here. C.T.A. analysed data and wrote the initial manuscript. All authors contributed to the review, commenting and writing of the manuscript.

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Correspondence to C. T. Adcock.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

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Adcock, C., Hausrath, E. & Forster, P. Readily available phosphate from minerals in early aqueous environments on Mars. Nature Geosci 6, 824–827 (2013). https://doi.org/10.1038/ngeo1923

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