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Deep Italian cave provides clues for how to detect life on Mars

4/18/2018

 UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- What can a massive cave in Italy tell us about life on Mars and other planets? According to new research by Penn State scientists, a whole lot.

In work published in Astrobiology, Penn State researchers identified biosignatures — or signs of the presence of life — about 1,300 feet below ground in the Frasassi Caves in central Italy.

“Using this cave environment, we provide a real-life field example of how we can detect life, past or present, on other planets,” said Jenn Macalady, associate professor of geosciences.

Originally, Macalady’s team was exploring the microbiology and geochemistry of the cave when they noticed something intriguing. They found variations in the isotopic content of atoms in the mineral gypsum, which is a weathering product of the cave’s formation. Not all gypsum is formed by microbes, but gypsum formed by microbes will have a different ratio of isotopes in the atoms. This isotopic variation, in combination with other data, indicates that life played an active role in producing the gypsum .  More

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