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Title: Extant Earthly Microbial Mats and Microbialites as Models for Exploration of Life in Extraterrestrial Mat Worlds
As we expand the search for life beyond Earth, a water-dominated planet, we turn our eyes to other aquatic worlds. Microbial life found in Earth’s many extreme habitats are considered useful analogs to life forms we are likely to find in extraterrestrial bodies of water. Modern-day benthic microbial mats inhabiting the low-oxygen, high-sulfur submerged sinkholes of temperate Lake Huron (Michigan, USA) and microbialites inhabiting the shallow, high-carbonate waters of subtropical Laguna Bacalar (Yucatan Peninsula, Mexico) serve as potential working models for exploration of extraterrestrial life. In Lake Huron, delicate mats comprising motile filaments of purple-pigmented cyanobacteria capable of oxygenic and anoxygenic photosynthesis and pigment-free chemosynthetic sulfur-oxidizing bacteria lie atop soft, organic-rich sediments. In Laguna Bacalar, lithification by cyanobacteria forms massive carbonate reef structures along the shoreline. Herein, we document studies of these two distinct earthly microbial mat ecosystems and ponder how similar or modified methods of study (e.g., robotics) would be applicable to prospective mat worlds in other planets and their moons (e.g., subsurface Mars and under-ice oceans of Europa). Further studies of modern-day microbial mat and microbialite ecosystems can add to the knowledge of Earth’s biodiversity and guide the search for life in extraterrestrial hydrospheres.
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