Detecting pyrolysis products from bacteria on Mars

Glavin, DP, Schubert M, Botta O, Kminek G, Bada JL.  2001.  Detecting pyrolysis products from bacteria on Mars. Earth and Planetary Science Letters. 185:1-5.

Date Published:



amino acids, amino-acids, chromatography, detection limit, Escherichia coli, life, Mars, pyrolysis, search, Viking Program


A pyrolysis/sublimation technique was developed to isolate volatile amine compounds from a Mars soil analogue inoculated with similar to 10 billion Escherichia coli cells. In this technique, the inoculated soil is heated to 500 degreesC for several seconds at Martian ambient pressure and the sublimate, collected by a cold finger, then analyzed using high performance liquid chromatography. Methylamine and ethylamine, produced from glycine and alanine decarboxylation, were the most abundant amine compounds detected after pyrolysis of the cells. A heating cycle similar to that utilized in our experiment was also used to release organic compounds from the Martian soil in the 1976 Viking gas chromatography/mass spectrometry (GC/MS) pyrolysis experiment. The Viking GC/MS did not detect any organic compounds of Martian origin above a level of a few parts per billion in the Martian surface soil. Although the Viking GC/MS instruments were not specifically designed to search for the presence of living cells on Mars, our experimental results indicate that at the part per billion level, the degradation products generated from several million bacterial cells per gram of Martian soil would not have been detected. (C) 2001 Elsevier Science B.V. All rights reserved.