Investigation of the Cytotoxicity of Mars-Relevant Minerals upon Abrasion

Martin Kobek Kjeldager Sigvartssøn, Ebbe Norskov Bak, Per Nørnberg, Svend J. Knak Jensen, Jan Thøgersen, Mikkel Begnhøj, Kai Finster*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journal/Conference contribution in journal/Contribution to newspaperJournal articleResearchpeer-review


Since the Viking Labeled Release experiments were carried out on Mars in the 1970s, it has been evident that the martian surface regolith has a strong oxidizing capacity that can convert organic compounds into CO2 and probably water. While H2O2 was suggested originally for being the oxidizing agent responsible for the outcome of the Viking experiments, recent analyses of the martian regolith by the Phoenix lander and by consecutive missions point toward radiation-mediated decomposition products of perchlorate salts as the primary oxidant. In a series of experiments, we have shown that abrasion and triboelectric charging of basalt by simulated saltation could be an additional way of activating regolith. We have also shown that abraded basalt with a chemical composition close to that of martian regolith is toxic to several bacterial species and thus may affect the habitability of the martian surface. In the present study, we investigated the effect of the quantitatively most important minerals (olivine, augite, and plagioclase) and iron oxides (hematite, magnetite, and maghemite) on the survival of bacterial cells to elucidate whether a specific mineral that constitutes basalt is responsible for our observations. We observed that suspensions of iron-containing minerals olivine and augite in phosphate-buffered saline (1 · PBS) significantly reduce the number of surviving cells of our model organism Pseudomonas putida after 24 h of incubation. In contrast, the iron-free mineral plagioclase showed no effect. We also observed that suspending abraded olivine and augite in 1 · PBS led to a dramatic increase in pH compared to the pH of 1 · PBS alone. The sudden increase in pH caused by the presence of these minerals may partly explain the observed cytotoxicity. The cytotoxic effect of augite could be relieved when a strong buffer (20 · PBS) was used. In contrast, olivine, despite the stronger buffer, maintained its cytotoxicity. Iron oxides per se have no negative effect on the survival of our test organism. Overall, our experiments confirm the cytotoxicity of basalt and show that no single constituent mineral of the basalt can account for its toxicity. We could show that abraded iron-containing minerals (olivine and augite) change the pH of water when brought into suspension and thereby could affect the habitability of martian regolith.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1090-1098
Number of pages9
Publication statusPublished - Oct 2023


  • Life on Mars
  • Radiation
  • Reactive oxygen species
  • Saltation
  • Viking biological experiments


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