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From Río Tinto to Mars: The Terrestrial and Extraterrestrial Ecology of Acidophiles

Amils, R., González-Toril, E., Aguilera, A., Rodríguez, N., Fernández-Remolar, D., Gómez, F., García-Moyano, A., Malki, M., Oggerin, M., Sánchez-Andrea, I., Sanz, J.L.
Advances in Applied Microbiology 2011 v.77 pp. 41-70
acid mine drainage, basins, bioreactors, drilling, energy, groundwater, habitats, heavy metals, iron, iron oxides, metabolism, methane, microbial activity, models, oxidants, oxidative stress, pH, pyrite, sediments, sulfates, toxicity
The recent geomicrobiological characterization of Río Tinto, Iberian Pyrite Belt (IPB), has proven the importance of the iron cycle, not only in generating the extreme conditions of the habitat (low pH, high concentration of toxic heavy metals) but also in maintaining the high level of microbial diversity, both prokaryotic and eukaryotic, detected in the water column and the sediments. The extreme conditions of the Tinto basin are not the product of industrial contamination but the consequence of the presence of an underground bioreactor that obtains its energy from the massive sulfide minerals of the IPB. To test this hypothesis, a drilling project was carried out to intersect ground waters that interact with the mineral ore in order to provide evidence of subsurface microbial activities and the potential resources to support these activities. The oxidants that drive the system appear to come from the rock matrix, contradicting conventional acid mine drainage models. These resources need only groundwater to launch microbial metabolism. There are several similarities between the vast deposits of sulfates and iron oxides on Mars and the main sulfide-containing iron bioleaching products found in the Tinto. Firstly, the short-lived methane detected both in Mars' atmosphere and in the sediments and subsurface of the IPB and secondly, the abundance of iron, common to both. The physicochemical properties of iron make it a source of energy, a shield against radiation and oxidative stress as well as a natural pH controller. These similarities have led to Río Tinto's status as a Mars terrestrial analogue.