Polymeric substances and biofilms as biomarkers in terrestrial materials: Implications for extraterrestrial samples
Organic polymeric substances are a fundamental component of microbial biofilms. Microorganisms, especially bacteria, secrete extracellular polymeric substances (EPS) to form slime layers in which they reproduce. In the sedimentary environment, biofilms commonly contain the products of degraded bacteria as well as allochthonous and autochthonous mineral components. They are complex structures which serve as protection for the colonies of microorganisms living in them and also act as nutrient traps. Biofilms are almost ubiquitous wherever there is an interface and moisture (liquid/liquid, liquid/solid, liquid/gas, solid/gas). In sedimentary rocks they are commonly recognized as stromatolites. We also discuss the distinction between bacterial biofilms and prebiotic films. The EPS and cell components of the microbial biofilms contain many cation chelation sites which are implicated in the mineralization of the films. EPS, biofilms, and their related components thus have strong preservation potential in the rock record. Fossilized microbial polymeric substances (FPS) and biofilms appear to retain the same morphological characteristics as the unfossilized material and have been recognized in rock formations dating back to the Early Archaean (3.5 b.y.). We describe FPS and biofilms from hot spring, deep-sea, volcanic lake, and shallow marine/littoral environments ranging up to 3.5 b.y. in age. FPS and biofilms are more commonly observed than fossil bacteria themselves, especially in the older part of the terrestrial record. The widespread distribution of microbial biofilms and their great survival potential makes their fossilized remains a useful biomarker as a proxy for life with obvious application to the search for life in extraterrestrial materials.