New research led by Dr Lorna Dougan gives insight into the limits of life on Mars

A team of researchers led by Dr Lorna Dougan has analysed the structure of water in a magnesium perchlorate solution to better understand how the liquid could exist on the Martian surface.

Dr Dougan and her team, investigating whether liquid water could exist on Mars, have provided new insight into the limits of life on the red planet – looking closely at what they refer to as “mimetic Martin water”.

Martian soil samples gathered by the Phoenix Lander in 2009 found calcium and powerful oxidants, including magnesium perchlorate. This fuelled speculation that perchlorate brine flows might be the cause of channelling and weathering observed on the planet’s surface.

Dr Dougan, from the School of Physics and Astronomy and the Astbury Centre, said:

“The discovery of significant amounts of different perchlorate salts in Martian soil gives new insight into the Martian ‘riverbeds.’

“The surface temperatures on Mars may reach a high of about 20°Celcius at the equator and as low as -153° Celsius at the pole. With an average surface temperature of -55° Celsius, water itself cannot exist as a liquid on Mars, but concentrated solutions of perchlorate could survive these low temperatures.”

Through experiments conducted at the ISIS Facility and computer modelling, the team was able to refine and analyse the structure of mimetic Martian water

The team was able to refine and analyse the structure of mimetic Martian water.

Dr Lorna Dougan, School of Physics and Astronomy

Impact on water structure

The outcome of Dr Dougan’s team’s analysis – published in Nature Communications – shows that the magnesium perchlorate solutions have a dramatic impact on water structure.

The effect of the perchlorate is equivalent to pressurizing pure water to 2 billion pascals or more. The team observed that the ions in the water become partially segregated and it is likely this segregation is what stops the liquid from freezing.

Dr Dougan said:

“We found these observations quite intriguing. It gives a different perspective of how salts dissolve in water. The magnesium perchlorate is clearly a major contributing factor on the freezing point of this solution and paves the way for understanding how a fluid might exist under the sub-freezing conditions of Mars.

“It raises interesting questions about the possibility of life on Mars. If the structure of Martian water is highly pressurised, perhaps we might expect to find organisms adapted to high pressure life similar to piezophiles on Earth, such as deep sea bacteria and other organisms that thrive at high pressure.

“This highlights the importance of studying life in extreme environments in both terrestrial and non-terrestrial environments so that we can fully understand the natural limits of life.

This highlights the importance of studying life in extreme environments in both terrestrial and non-terrestrial environments so that we can fully understand the natural limits of life.

Dr Lorna Dougan, School of Physics and Astronomy

ISIS Research Facility

The ISIS Facility is a world-leading centre for research in the physical and life sciences at the STFC Rutherford Appleton Laboratory near Oxford in the United Kingdom.

The facility supports a national and international community of more than 3000 scientists for research into subjects ranging from clean energy and the environment, pharmaceuticals and health care, through to nanotechnology and materials engineering, catalysis and polymers, and on to fundamental studies of materials.

Dr Lorna Dougan

Dr Dougan's collaborative research is focused on developing biophysical approaches for characterising the physical mechanisms of protein’s which survive in extreme environments. By examining single molecules one at a time, the individual dynamics of sub-populations can be measured. This approach could aid in the design of molecules for exploitation in biotechnology. Dr Dougan untertakes leading research among the following Centres:

Astbury Centre for Structural and Molecular Biology

Institute of Physics Liquids and Complex Fluids Group

Institute of Physics Yorkshire Branch

Dr Dougan's research group is interested in using novel biophysical approaches to explore the structure and dynamics of molecules in aqueous solutions. The major theme of our multidisciplinary program involves the development of single molecule manipulation techniques as well as structural studies using neutron diffraction and computational modelling. These powerful techniques are used as tools to study biomolecular self-assembly in both simple and complex systems.

Further information

The research paper “Highly compressed water structure observed in a perchlorate aqueous solution” is published in Nature Communications 13 October 2017.

Contributing authors include: Samuel Lenton, Natasha H. Rhys, James J. Towey, Dr Lorna Dougan and Professor Alan K. Soper

The project was supported by a grant from the Engineering and Physics Sciences Research Council.

Dr L. Dougan is supported by a fellowship from the European Research Council.

Experiments at the ISIS Pulsed Neutron were supported by a beam time allocation from the Science and Technology Facilities Council under proposal number RB1300009.

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