Issue 2, 2024

Bacterial model membranes under the harsh subsurface conditions of Mars


Biomembranes are a key component of all living systems. Most research on membranes is restricted to ambient physiological conditions. However, the influence of extreme conditions, such as the deep subsurface on Earth or extraterrestrial environments, is less well understood. The deep subsurface of Mars is thought to harbour high concentrations of chaotropic salts in brines, yet we know little about how these conditions would influence the habitability of such environments. Here, we investigated the combined effects of high concentrations of Mars-relevant salts, including sodium and magnesium perchlorate and sulphate, and high hydrostatic pressure on the stability, structure, and function of a bacterial model membrane. To this end, several biophysical techniques have been employed, including calorimetry, fluorescence and CD spectroscopy, confocal microscopy, and small-angle X-ray scattering. We demonstrate that sulphate and perchlorate salts affect the properties of the membrane differently, depending on the counterion present (Na+vs. Mg2+). We found that the perchlorates, which are believed to be abundant salts in the Martian environment, induce a more hydrated and less ordered membrane, strongly favouring the physiologically relevant fluid-like phase of the membrane even under high-pressure stress. Moreover, we show that the activity of the phospholipase A2 is strongly modulated by both high pressure and salt. Compellingly, in the presence of the chaotropic perchlorate, the enzymatic reaction proceeded at a reasonable rate even in the presence of condensing Mg2+ and at high pressure, suggesting that bacterial membranes could still persist when challenged to function in such a highly stressed Martian environment.

Graphical abstract: Bacterial model membranes under the harsh subsurface conditions of Mars

Supplementary files

Article information

Article type
15 Aug 2023
16 Oct 2023
First published
17 Oct 2023
This article is Open Access
Creative Commons BY license

Phys. Chem. Chem. Phys., 2024,26, 760-769

Bacterial model membranes under the harsh subsurface conditions of Mars

A. Tortorella, R. Oliva, C. Giancola, L. Petraccone and R. Winter, Phys. Chem. Chem. Phys., 2024, 26, 760 DOI: 10.1039/D3CP03911K

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