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CMU Postdoctoral Study Rocks With Mars Similarities

Bowen, whose research focuses on an area of geology called diagenesis, and Benison collected hundreds of samples of rocks and water from 27 Australian lakes this summer and shipped them to a CMU laboratory, where they are being examined in minute detail.

Mount Pleasant MI (SPX) Oct 07, 2005
Microscopic life in lakes of southwestern Australia may provide keys to unlocking the secrets of past environments and the possibility of life on Mars.

An unparalleled study by Brenda Beitler Bowen, a Central Michigan University postdoctoral research associate, on salty acid lakes in Australia provides a rare, modern analogy to ancient geologic formations on Earth and Mars.

"There are very, very few places on Earth that have this type of acid environment," said Bowen, who is working with CMU faculty geologist Kathleen Benison, an expert on ancient acidic lakes whose work has been featured in National Geographic and Newsweek.

"One is Australia. No one thought that life could exist in salty and acidic water, but we found evidence that it does, even under extreme conditions. We expect we may even find new species."

"Brenda brings great strengths in sedimentary geology and geochemistry to the project and has done a fantastic job so far," said Benison. "Brenda has been a tremendous partner in the field and in the lab."

Bowen, whose research focuses on an area of geology called diagenesis, and Benison collected hundreds of samples of rocks and water from 27 Australian lakes this summer and shipped them to a CMU laboratory, where they are being examined in minute detail.

"I study everything that happens to a rock after it's laid down how it's formed, how water flows into pores in the rock, its fluid and chemistry," said Bowen.

CMU undergraduate geology major Elliot Jagniecki of Whitehall, who helped collect the samples, is studying bubbles, called fluid inclusions, found in the salt mineral for evidence of life.

Recent NASA images and geochemical data from Mars reveal a unique suite of minerals and sedimentary structures that are consistent with features found on Earth.

"We know there are layered rock formations on Mars, and that there was water," she said.

"Preliminary investigations suggest microbial life is present even in extreme geochemical conditions in Australia. Evaluation of this potential for life in these environments can help to provide guidelines for how the search for life on Mars might continue. Where water is, there is life. Just about everything else we found in Australia is strikingly similar to what NASA found on Mars."

This study is breaking new ground.

"We're the only ones studying these types of acid lakes on Earth," Bowen said. "The reason I chose to come to CMU for my postdoctoral study was because of Kathy (Benison) and her work in this area."

Bowen will present her study at the Geology Society of America meeting Oct. 16.

"I'm very excited because other speakers in this session are NASA experts," said Bowen.

She found other analogies by digging in Southern Utah. Her doctoral dissertation was on sandstone concretions small, pebble-like formations in rocks that indicate the impact of fluids and minerals.

In Utah, the rock formations were ancient, indicating a long period of time to form, but younger formations in Australia indicate that rocks can be formed more quickly than previously believed. This may help discover more about the possibility of life on Mars.

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