Space Science Reviews

, Volume 135, Issue 1–4, pp 95–114 | Cite as

Morphological Biosignatures in Early Terrestrial and Extraterrestrial Materials

  • Frances WestallEmail author


Biosignatures in early terrestrial rocks are highly relevant in the search for traces of life on Mars because the early geological environments of the two planets were, in many respects, similar and, thus, the potential habitats for early life forms were similar. However, the identification and interpretation of biosignatures in ancient terrestrial rocks has proven contentious over the last few years. Recently, new investigations using very detailed field studies combined with highly sophisticated analytical techniques have begun to document a large range of biosignatures in Early Archaean rocks. Early life on Earth was diversified, widespread and relatively evolved, but its traces are generally, but not always, small and subtle. In this contribution I use a few examples of morphological biosignatures from the Early-Mid Archaean to demonstrate their variety in terms of size and type: macroscopic stromatolites from the 3.443 Ga Strelley Pool Chert, Pilbara; a meso-microscopic microbial mat from the 3.333 Ga Josefsdal Chert, Barberton; microscopic microbial colonies and a biofilm from the 3.446 Ga Kitty’s Gap Chert, Pilbara; and microscopic microbial corrosion pits in the glassy rinds of 3.22–3.48 Ga pillow lavas from Barberton. Some macroscopic and microscopic structures may be identifiable in an in situ robotic mission to Mars and in situ methods of organic molecule detection may be able to reveal organic traces of life. However, it is concluded that it will probably be necessary to return suitably chosen Martian rocks to Earth for the reliable identification of signs of life, since multiple observational and analytical methods will be necessary, especially if Martian life is significantly different from terrestrial life.


Early Archaean Mars Biosignatures Stromatolites Fossil microbial mats Fossil microbial colonies 


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© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2008

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Centre de Biophysique MoléculaireCNRSOrléans cedex 02France

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