Life in Earth’s Lava Caves: Implications for Life Detection on Other Planets

  • Diana E. Northup
  • Jennifer J. M. Hathaway
  • Jessica R. Snider
  • Monica Moya Balasch
  • Matthew G. Garcia
  • Maria L. N. Enes Dapkevicius
  • Cristina Riquelme Gabriel
  • Fred D. Stone
  • Michael N. Spilde
  • Penelope J. Boston
Part of the Cellular Origin, Life in Extreme Habitats and Astrobiology book series (COLE, volume 24)


Lava caves represent a scientifically untapped habitat in which to study Earth’s microbial life and provide an outstanding environment in which to identify biosignatures for detecting life on other planets. Our studies of microbial mats and mineral deposits in lava caves in the Azores (Portugal), New Mexico, and Hawai‘i (USA) have revealed a wealth of bacterial diversity through molecular genetic analyses and scanning electron microscopy. Much of this bacterial diversity represents novel species, as well as novel higher taxonomic units, such as genera and families. Geochemical analyses of infiltrating water, soils, and rock walls suggest the presence of organic carbon that may fuel heterotrophy and reduce inorganic energy sources, such as iron, manganese, and sulfur to fuel chemolithotrophy. Scanning electron microscopy studies of mineral deposits, accompanied by molecular studies, reveals the presence of extensive biological morphologies in a variety of mineral deposits decorating lava cave walls. These studies provide a rationale for examining mineral deposits in lava caves on extraterrestrial bodies in the search for life or its remnants.


Mineral Deposit Twilight Zone Life Detection Cave Environment Cave Deposit 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.



The authors thank Hawaii Volcanoes National Park and El Malpais National Park for collecting permits and support of our research and landowners in Hawai‘i and the Azores for permission to collect samples. The authors thank Don Coons, Emily Davis, Mike Warner, Larry Flemming, Jim Werker, Val Hildreth Werker, Ara Kooser, Fernando Pereira, Airidas Dapkevicius, Rita Varela, and many more who assisted with fieldwork. Funding was provided by the Cave Conservancy of the Virginias Undergraduate Research Grant, Alliance for Minority Participation, T&E Inc., Western National Park Association, Fundação para a Ciência e a Tecnologia, and Kenneth Ingham Consulting. The project was supported in part by the Undergraduate Opportunities program at the Museum of Southwestern Biology (NSF-DEB 0731350). Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation. We also acknowledge technical support from the Molecular Biology Facility, which is supported by NIH grant number P20RR018754. Ali Ghadimi provided scanning electron micrographs of the pink hexagons. The authors gratefully acknowledge the photographic contributions of Kenneth Ingham.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2012

Authors and Affiliations

  • Diana E. Northup
    • 1
  • Jennifer J. M. Hathaway
    • 1
  • Jessica R. Snider
    • 7
  • Monica Moya Balasch
    • 1
  • Matthew G. Garcia
    • 1
  • Maria L. N. Enes Dapkevicius
    • 2
  • Cristina Riquelme Gabriel
    • 2
  • Fred D. Stone
    • 3
    • 6
  • Michael N. Spilde
    • 4
  • Penelope J. Boston
    • 5
  1. 1.Biology DepartmentUniversity of New MexicoAlbuquerqueUSA
  2. 2.CITA-A, Departamento de Ciências AgráriasUniversidade dos Açores, Rua Capitão João d`Ávila, São PedroTerceiraPortugal
  3. 3.University of Hawaii at HiloHiloUSA
  4. 4.Institute of Meteoritic University of New MexicoAlbuquerqueUSA
  5. 5.Earth and Environmental Sciences DepartmentNM Institute of Mining and TechnologySocorroUSA
  6. 6.Bishop MuseumHonoluluUSA
  7. 7.Texas State UniversityRiver Systems Institute - Texas Stream TeamSan MarcosUSA

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