Megafloods: What They Leave Behind

South-central Idaho and the surface of Mars have an interesting geological feature in common: amphitheater-headed canyons. These U-shaped canyons with tall vertical headwalls are found near the Snake River in Idaho as well as on the surface of Mars, according to photographs taken by satellites. Various explanations for how these canyons formed have been offered—some for Mars, some for Idaho, some for both—but in a paper published the week of December 16 in the online issue of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Caltech professor of geology Michael P. Lamb, Benjamin Mackey, formerly a postdoctoral fellow at Caltech, and W. M. Keck Foundation Professor of Geochemistry Kenneth A. Farley offer a plausible account that all these canyons were created by enormous floods.

Canyons in Malad Gorge State Park, Idaho, are carved into a relatively flat plain composed of a type of volcanic rock known as basalt. The basalt originated from a hotspot, located in what is now Yellowstone Park, which has been active for the last few million years. Two canyons in Malad Gorge, Woody's Cove and Stubby Canyon, are characterized by tall vertical headwalls, roughly 150 feet high, that curve around to form an amphitheater. Other amphitheater-headed canyons can be found nearby, outside the Gorge—Box Canyon, Blue Lakes Canyon, and Devil's Corral—and also elsewhere on Earth, such as in Iceland.

To figure out how they formed, Lamb and Mackey conducted field surveys and collected rock samples from Woody's Cove, Stubby Canyon, and a third canyon in Malad Gorge, known as Pointed Canyon. As its name indicates, Pointed Canyon ends not in an amphitheater but in a point, as it progressively narrows in the upstream direction toward the plateau at an average 7 percent grade. Through Pointed Canyon flows the Wood River, a tributary of the larger Snake River, which in turn empties into the Columbia River on its way to the Pacific Ocean.

Geologists have a good understanding of how the rocks in Woody's Cove and Stubby Canyon achieved their characteristic appearance. The lava flows that hardened into basalt were initially laid down in layers, some more than six feet thick. As the lava cooled, it contracted and cracked, just as mud does when it dries. This produced vertical cracks across the entire layer of lava-turned-basalt. As each additional sheet of lava covered the same land, it too cooled and cracked vertically, leaving a wall that, when exposed, looks like stacks of tall blocks, slightly offset from one another with each additional layer. This type of structure is called columnar basalt.

While the formation of columnar basalt is well understood, it is not clear how, at Woody's Cove and Stubby Canyon, the vertical walls became exposed or how they took on their curved shapes. The conventional explanation is that the canyons were formed via a process called "groundwater sapping," in which springs at the bottom of the canyon gradually carve tunnels at the base of the rock wall until this undercutting destabilizes the structure so much that blocks or columns of basalt fall off from above, creating the amphitheater below.

This explanation has not been corroborated by the Caltech team's observations, for two reasons. First, there is no evidence of undercutting, even though there are existing springs at the base of Woody's Cove and Stubby Canyon. Second, undercutting should leave large boulders in place at the foot of the canyon, at least until they are dissolved or carried away by groundwater. "These blocks are too big to move by spring flow, and there's not enough time for the groundwater to have dissolved them away," Lamb explains, "which means that large floods are needed to move them out. To make a canyon, you have to erode the canyon headwall, and you also have to evacuate the material that collapses in."

That leaves waterfall erosion during a large flood event as the only remaining candidate for the canyon formation that occurred in Malad Gorge, the Caltech team concludes.

No water flows over the top of Woody's Cove and Stubby Canyon today. But even a single incident of overland water flow occurring during an unusually large flood event could pluck away and topple boulders from the columnar basalt, taking advantage of the vertical fracturing already present in the volcanic rock. A flood of this magnitude could also carry boulders downstream, leaving behind the amphitheater canyons we see today without massive boulder piles at their bottoms and with no existing watercourses.

Additional evidence that at some point in the past water flowed over the plateaus near Woody's Cove and Stubby Canyon are the presence of scour marks on surface rocks on the plateau above the canyons. These scour marks are evidence of the type of abrasion that occurs when a water discharge containing sediment moves overland.

Taken together, the evidence from Malad Gorge, Lamb says, suggests that "amphitheater shapes might be diagnostic of very large-scale floods, which would imply much larger water discharges and much shorter flow durations than predicted by the previous groundwater theory." Lamb points out that although groundwater sapping "is often assumed to explain the origin of amphitheater-headed canyons, there is no place on Earth where it has been demonstrated to work in columnar basalt."

Closing the case on the canyons at Malad Gorge required one further bit of information: the ages of the rock samples. This was accomplished at Caltech's Noble Gas Lab, run by Kenneth A. Farley, W. M. Keck Foundation Professor of Geochemistry and chair of the Division of Geological and Planetary Sciences.

The key to dating surface rocks on Earth is cosmic rays—very high-energy particles from space that regularly strike Earth. "Cosmic rays interact with the atmosphere and eventually with rocks at the surface, producing alternate versions of noble gas elements, or isotopes, called cosmogenic nuclides," Lamb explains. "If we know the cosmic-ray flux, and we measure the accumulation of nuclides in a certain mineral, then we can calculate the time that rock has been sitting at Earth's surface."

At the Noble Gas Lab, Farley and Mackey determined that rock samples from the heads of Woody's Cove and Stubby Canyon had been exposed for the same length of time, approximately 46,000 years. If Lamb and his colleagues are correct, this is when the flood event occurred that plucked the boulders off the canyon walls, leaving the amphitheaters behind.

Further evidence supporting the team's theory can be found in Pointed Canyon. Rock samples collected along the walls of the first kilometer of the canyon show progressively more exposure in the downstream direction, suggesting that the canyon is still being carved by Wood River. Using the dates of exposure revealed in the rock samples, Lamb reconstructed the probable location of Pointed Canyon at the time of the formation of Woody's Cove and Stubby Canyon. At that location, where the rock has been exposed approximately 46,000 years, the surrounding canyon walls form the characteristic U-shape of an amphitheater-headed canyon and then abruptly narrow into the point that forms the remainder of Pointed Canyon. "The same megaflood event that created Woody's Cove and Stubby Canyon seems to have created Pointed Canyon," Lamb concludes. "The only difference is that the other canyons had no continuing river action, while Pointed Canyon was cut relatively slowly over the last 46,000 years by the Wood River, which is not powerful enough to topple and pluck basalt blocks from the surrounding plateau, resulting in a narrow channel rather than tall vertical headwalls."

Solving the puzzle of how amphitheater-headed canyons are created has implications reaching far beyond south-central Idaho because similar features—though some much larger—are also present on the surface of Mars. "A very popular interpretation for the amphitheater-headed canyons on Mars is that groundwater seeps out of cracks at the base of the canyon headwalls and that no water ever went over the top," Lamb says. Judging from the evidence in Idaho, however, it seems more likely that on Mars, as on Earth, amphitheater-headed canyons were created by enormous flood events, suggesting that Mars was once a very watery planet.

The paper presenting these results is entitled "Amphitheater-Headed Canyons Formed by Megaflooding at Malad Gorge, Idaho." The work was supported by grants from the National Science Foundation and NASA.

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First Rock Dating Experiment Performed on Mars

Although researchers have determined the ages of rocks from other planetary bodies, the actual experiments—like analyzing meteorites and moon rocks—have always been done on Earth. Now, for the first time, researchers have successfully determined the age of a Martian rock—with experiments performed on Mars. The work, led by geochemist Ken Farley of the California Institute of Technology (Caltech), could not only help in understanding the geologic history of Mars but also aid in the search for evidence of ancient life on the planet.

Many of the experiments carried out by the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) mission's Curiosity rover were painstakingly planned by NASA scientists more than a decade ago. However, shortly before the rover left Earth in 2011, NASA's participating scientist program asked researchers from all over the world to submit new ideas for experiments that could be performed with the MSL's already-designed instruments. Farley, W.M. Keck Foundation Professor of Geochemistry and one of the 29 selected participating scientists, submitted a proposal that outlined a set of techniques similar to those already used for dating rocks on Earth, to determine the age of rocks on Mars. Findings from the first such experiment on the Red Planet—published by Farley and coworkers this week in a collection of Curiosity papers in the journal Science Express—provide the first age determinations performed on another planet.

The paper is one of six appearing in the journal that reports results from the analysis of data and observations obtained during Curiosity's exploration at Yellowknife Bay—an expanse of bare bedrock in Gale Crater about 500 meters from the rover's landing site. The smooth floor of Yellowknife Bay is made up of a fine-grained sedimentary rock, or mudstone, that researchers think was deposited on the bed of an ancient Martian lake.

In March, Curiosity drilled holes into the mudstone and collected powdered rock samples from two locations about three meters apart. Once the rock samples were drilled, Curiosity's robotic arm delivered the rock powder to the Sample Analysis on Mars (SAM) instrument, where it was used for a variety of chemical analyses, including the geochronology—or rock dating—techniques.

One technique, potassium-argon dating, determines the age of a rock sample by measuring how much argon gas it contains. Over time, atoms of the radioactive form of potassium—an isotope called potassium-40—will decay within a rock to spontaneously form stable atoms of argon-40. This decay occurs at a known rate, so by determining the amount of argon-40 in a sample, researchers can calculate the sample's age.

Although the potassium-argon method has been used to date rocks on Earth for many decades, these types of measurements require sophisticated lab equipment that could not easily be transported and used on another planet. Farley had the idea of performing the experiment on Mars using the SAM instrument. There, the sample was heated to temperatures high enough that the gasses within the rock were released and could be analyzed by an onboard mass spectrometer.

Farley and his colleagues determined the age of the mudstone to be about 3.86 to 4.56 billion years old. "In one sense, this is an utterly unsurprising result—it's the number that everybody expected," Farley says.

Indeed, prior to Curiosity's geochronology experiment, researchers using the "crater counting" method had estimated the age of Gale Crater and its surroundings to be between 3.6 and 4.1 billion years old. Crater counting relies on the simple fact that planetary surfaces are repeatedly bombarded with objects that scar their surface with impact craters; a surface with many impact craters is presumed to be older than one with fewer craters. Although this method is simple, it has large uncertainties.

"What was surprising was that our result—from a technique that was implemented on Mars with little planning on Earth—got a number that is exactly what crater counting predicted," Farley says. "MSL instruments weren't designed for this purpose, and we weren't sure if the experiment was going to work, but the fact that our number is consistent with previous estimates suggests that the technique works, and it works quite well."

The researchers do, however, acknowledge that there is some uncertainty in their measurement. One reason is that mudstone is a sedimentary rock—formed in layers over a span of millions of years from material that eroded off of the crater walls—and thus the age of the sample drilled by Curiosity really represents the combined age of those bits and pieces. So while the mudstone indicates the existence of an ancient lake—and a habitable environment some time in the planet's distant past—neither crater counting nor potassium-argon dating can directly determine exactly when this was.

To provide an answer for how the geology of Yellowknife Bay has changed over time, Farley and his colleagues also designed an experiment using a method called surface exposure dating. "The surface of Mars, the surface of Earth, and basically all surfaces in the solar system are being bombarded by cosmic rays," explains Farley, and when these rays—very high-energy protons—blast into an atom, the atom's nucleus shatters, creating isotopes of other elements. Cosmic rays can only penetrate about two to three meters below the surface, so the abundance of cosmic-ray-debris isotopes in rock indicates how long that rock has been on the surface.

Using the SAM mass spectrometer to measure the abundance of three isotopes that result from cosmic-ray bombardment—helium-3, neon-21, and argon-36—Farley and his colleagues calculated that the mudstone at Yellowknife Bay has been exposed at the surface for about 80 million years. "All three of the isotopes give exactly the same answer; they all have their independent sources of uncertainty and complications, but they all give exactly the same answer. That is probably the most remarkable thing I've ever seen as a scientist, given the difficulty of the analyses," Farley says.

This also helps researchers looking for evidence of past life on Mars. Cosmic rays are known to degrade the organic molecules that may be telltale fossils of ancient life. However, because the rock at Yellowknife Bay has only been exposed to cosmic rays for 80 million years—a relatively small sliver of geologic time—"the potential for organic preservation at the site where we drilled is better than many people had guessed," Farley says.

Furthermore, the "young" surface exposure offers insight into the erosion history of the site. "When we first came up with this number, the geologists said, 'Yes, now we get it, now we understand why this rock surface is so clean and there is no sand or rubble,'" Farley says. 

The exposure of rock in Yellowknife Bay has been caused by wind erosion. Over time, as wind blows sand against the small cliffs, or scarps, that bound the Yellowknife outcrop, the scarps erode back, revealing new rock that previously was not exposed to cosmic rays.

"Imagine that you are in this site a hundred million years ago; the area that we drilled in was covered by at least a few meters of rock. At 80 million years ago, wind would have caused this scarp to migrate across the surface and the rock below the scarp would have gone from being buried—and safe from cosmic rays—to exposed," Farley explains. Geologists have developed a relatively well-understood model, called the scarp retreat model, to explain how this type of environment evolves. "That gives us some idea about why the environment looks like it does and it also gives us an idea of where to look for rocks that are even less exposed to cosmic rays," and thus are more likely to have preserved organic molecules, Farley says.

Curiosity is now long gone from Yellowknife Bay, off to new drilling sites on the route to Mount Sharp where more dating can be done. "Had we known about this before we left Yellowknife Bay, we might have done an experiment to test the prediction that cosmic-ray irradiation should be reduced as you go in the downwind direction, closer to the scarp, indicating a newer, more recently exposed rock, and increased irradiation when you go in the upwind direction, indicating a rock exposed to the surface longer ago," Farley says. "We'll likely drill in January, and the team is definitely focused on finding another scarp to test this on."

This information could also be important for Curiosity chief scientist John Grotzinger, Caltech's Fletcher Jones Professor of Geology. In another paper in the same issue of Science Express, Grotzinger—who studies the history of Mars as a habitable environment—and colleagues examined the physical characteristics of the rock layers in and near Yellowknife Bay. They concluded that the environment was habitable less than 4 billion years ago, which is a relatively late point in the planet's history.

"This habitable environment existed later than many people thought possible," Grotzinger says. His findings suggest that the surface water on Mars at that time would have been sufficient enough to make clays. Previously, such clays—evidence of a habitable environment—were thought to have washed in from older deposits. Knowing that the clays could be produced later in locations with surface water can help researchers pin down the best areas at which to look for once habitable environments, he says.

Farley's work is published in a paper titled "In-situ radiometric and exposure age dating of the Martian surface." Other Caltech coauthors on the study include Grotzinger, graduate student Hayden B. Miller, and Edward Stolper.

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Caltech Names Thomas F. Rosenbaum as New President

To: The Caltech Community

From: Fiona Harrison, Benjamin M. Rosen Professor of Physics and Astronomy, and Chair, Faculty Search Committee; and David Lee, Chair, Board of Trustees, and Chair, Trustee Selection Committee

Today it is our great privilege to announce the appointment of Thomas F. Rosenbaum as the ninth president of the California Institute of Technology.

Dr. Rosenbaum, 58, is currently the John T. Wilson Distinguished Service Professor of Physics at the University of Chicago, where he has served as the university's provost for the past seven years. As a distinguished physicist and expert on condensed matter physics, Dr. Rosenbaum has explored the quantum mechanical nature of materials, making major contributions to the understanding of matter near absolute zero, where such quantum mechanical effects dominate. His experiments in quantum phase transitions in matter are recognized as having played a key role in placing these transitions on a theoretical level equivalent to that which has been developed for classical systems.

But Dr. Rosenbaum's scientific achievements were not solely what captured and held the attention of those involved in the presidential search. We on the search committee were impressed by Dr. Rosenbaum's deep dedication, as Chicago's provost, to both undergraduate and graduate education—both critical parts of Caltech's mission. He has had responsibility for an unusually broad range of institutions and intellectual endeavors. Among his achievements as provost was the establishment of the Institute for Molecular Engineering in 2011, the University of Chicago's very first engineering program, in collaboration with Argonne National Lab.

We also believe that Dr. Rosenbaum's focus on strengthening the intellectual ties between the University of Chicago and Argonne National Lab will serve him well in furthering the Caltech-JPL relationship.

As provost, Dr. Rosenbaum was also instrumental in establishing collaborative educational programs serving communities around Chicago's Hyde Park campus, including the university's founding of a four-campus charter school that was originally designed to further fundamental research in education but which has also achieved extraordinary college placement results for disadvantaged Chicago youths.

This successful conclusion to our eight-month presidential search was result of the hard work of the nine-member Faculty Search Committee, chaired by Fiona Harrison, and the 10-member Trustee Selection Committee, chaired by David Lee. We are grateful both to the trustees and faculty on our two committees who made our job so very easy as well as to those faculty, students, staff, and alumni who provided us with input and wisdom as we scoured the country for just the right person for our Caltech.

"Tom embodies all the qualities the faculty committee hoped to find in our next president," Harrison says. "He is a first-rate scholar and someone who understands at a deep level the commitment to fundamental inquiry that characterizes Caltech. He is also the kind of ambitious leader who will develop the faculty's ideas into the sorts of innovative ventures that will maintain Caltech's position of prominence in the next generation of science and technology."

"The combination of deep management experience and visionary leadership Tom brings will serve Caltech extremely well in the coming years," Lee adds. "The Board is excited about collaborating closely with Tom to propel the Institute to new levels of scientific leadership."

"The Caltech community's palpable and deep commitment to the Institute came through in all my conversations, and it forms the basis for Caltech's and JPL's lasting impact," Dr. Rosenbaum says. "It will be a privilege to work closely with faculty, students, staff, and trustees to explore new opportunities, building on Caltech's storied accomplishments."

Dr. Rosenbaum received his bachelor's degree in physics with honors from Harvard University in 1977, and both an MA and PhD in physics from Princeton University in 1979 and 1982, respectively. He did research at Bell Laboratories and at IBM Watson Research Center before joining the University of Chicago's faculty in 1983. Dr. Rosenbaum directed the university's Materials Research Laboratory from 1991 to 1994 and its interdisciplinary James Franck Institute from 1995 to 2001 before serving as vice president for research and for Argonne National Laboratory from 2002 to 2006. He was named the university's provost in 2007. His honors include an Alfred P. Sloan Research Fellowship, a Presidential Young Investigator Award, and the William McMillan Award for "outstanding contributions to condensed matter physics." Dr. Rosenbaum is an elected fellow of the American Physical Society, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Joining the Caltech faculty will be Dr. Rosenbaum's spouse, Katherine T. Faber, the Walter P. Murphy Professor of Materials Science and Engineering at Northwestern University. Dr. Faber's research focuses on understanding stress fractures in ceramics, as well as on the fabrication of ceramic materials with controlled porosity, which are important as thermal and environmental barrier coatings for engine components. Dr. Faber is also the codirector of the Northwestern University-Art Institute of Chicago Center for Scientific Studies in the Arts (NU-ACCESS), which employs advanced materials science techniques for art history and restoration. Dr. Rosenbaum and Dr. Faber have two sons, Daniel, who graduated from the University of Chicago in 2012, and Michael, who is currently a junior there.

Dr. Rosenbaum will succeed Jean-Lou Chameau, who served the Institute from 2006 to 2013, and will take over the helm from interim president and provost Ed Stolper on July 1, 2014. The board, the search committee, and, indeed, the entire Institute owes Dr. Stolper a debt of gratitude for his unwavering commitment to Caltech, and for seamlessly continuing the Institute's forward momentum through his interim presidency.

As you meet Dr. Rosenbaum today and over the coming months, and learn more about his vision for Caltech's future, we believe that you will quickly come to see why he is so well suited to guide Caltech as we continue to pursue bold investigations in science and engineering, to ready the next generation of scientific and thought leaders, and to benefit humankind through research that is integrated with education.

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Caltech Named World's Top University in Times Higher Education Global Ranking

For the third year in a row, the California Institute of Technology has been rated the world's number one university in the Times Higher Education global ranking of the top 200 universities.

Harvard University, Oxford University, Stanford University, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology round out the top five schools in the 2013–2014 rankings.

Times Higher Education compiled the listing using the same methodology as in the 2011–2012 and 2012–2013 surveys. Thirteen performance indicators representing research (worth 30 percent of a school's overall ranking score), teaching (30 percent), citations (30 percent), international outlook (which includes the total numbers of international students and faculty and the ratio of scholarly papers with international collaborators, 7.5 percent), and industry income (a measure of innovation, 2.5 percent) make up the data. The data were collected, analyzed, and verified by Thomson Reuters.

The Times Higher Education site has the full list of the world's top 400 schools and all of the performance indicators.

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Kathy Svitil
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Scientists Find a Martian Igneous Rock that is Surprisingly Earth-like

During the nearly 14 months that it has spent on the red planet, Curiosity, the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) rover, has scooped soil, drilled rocks, and analyzed samples by exposing them to laser beams, X-rays, and alpha particles using the most sophisticated suite of scientific instruments ever deployed on another planet. One result of this effort was evidence reported last March that ancient Mars could have supported microbial life.

But Curiosity is far more than a one-trick rover, and in a paper published today in the journal Science, a team of MSL scientists reports its analysis of a surprisingly Earth-like martian rock that offers new insight into the history of Mars's interior and suggests parts of the red planet may be more like our own than we ever knew.  

The paper—whose lead author is Edward Stolper, Caltech's William E. Leonhard Professor of Geology, provost, and interim president—is one of five appearing in the journal with results from the analysis of data and observations obtained during Curiosity's first 100 martian days (sols). The other papers include an evaluation of fine- and coarse-grained soil samples and detailed analyses of the composition and formation process of a windblown drift of sand and dust.

"The results presented go beyond the question of habitability," says John Grotzinger, MSL project scientist and Caltech's Fletcher Jones Professor of Geology. "Mars Science Laboratory also has a major mission objective to explore and characterize the geological environment at all scales and also the atmosphere. In doing this we learn about the fundamental physical and chemical properties that distinguish the terrestrial planets from each other and also what they share in common."

The paper by Stolper and his colleagues—including Caltech senior research scientist Michael Baker and graduate student Megan Newcombe—examines in detail a 50-centimeter-tall pyramid-shaped rock named "Jake_M" (after MSL surface operations systems chief engineer Jacob "Jake" Matijevic, who passed away two weeks after Curiosity's landing).

The rock was encountered by Curiosity a few weeks after it landed, during its slow drive across Gale Crater on the way toward the crater's central peak, Mount Sharp. Visual inspection of the dark gray rock suggested that it was probably a fine-grained basaltic igneous rock formed by the crystallization of magma near the planet's surface. The absence of obvious mineral grains on its essentially dust-free surface further suggested that it would have a relatively uniform (i.e., homogeneous) chemical composition.

For that reason, MSL's scientists decided it would be a good test case for comparing the results obtained by two of the rover's scientific instruments, the Alpha Particle X-ray Spectrometer (APXS) and ChemCam, both of which are used to measure the chemical compositions of rocks, sediments, and minerals.

The APXS analyses, however, produced some unanticipated results. Far from being similar in its chemical composition to the many martian igneous rocks analyzed by the Spirit and Opportunity rovers on the surface of Mars or to martian meteorites found on Earth, Jake_M is highly enriched in sodium and potassium, making it chemically alkaline.

Although Jake_M is very different from known martian rocks, Stolper and colleagues realized that it is very similar in its chemical composition to a relatively rare type of terrestrial igneous rock, known as a mugearite, which is typically found on ocean islands and in continental rift zones.

"We realized right away that although nothing like it had ever been found on Mars, Jake_M is similar in composition to terrestrial mugearites, which although uncommon are very well known to igneous petrologists who study volcanic rocks on Earth," Stolper says. "In fact, if this rock were found on Earth, we would be hard pressed, based on its elemental composition, to tell it was not an Earth rock." However, he notes, "such rocks are so uncommon on Earth that it would be highly unlikely that, if you landed a spacecraft on Earth in a random location, the first rock you encountered within a few hundred meters of your landing site would be an alkaline rock like Jake_M."

On both Earth and Mars, basaltic liquids form by partial melting of rocks deep inside the planet. By analogy with terrestrial mugearites, Jake_M probably evolved from such a partial melt that cooled as it ascended toward the surface from the martian interior; as it cooled, crystals formed, and the chemical composition of the remaining liquid changed (just as, in the making of rock candy, a sugar-water solution becomes less sweet as it cools and sugar crystallizes from it).

"The minerals that crystallize have different elemental compositions than the melt and are either more dense or less dense than the liquid and thus tend to physically separate, that is, to settle to the bottom of the magma chamber or float to the top, causing the chemical composition of the remaining liquid to change," Baker explains.  

The MSL team then modeled the conditions required to produce a residual liquid similar in composition to Jake_M by crystallization of plausible partial melts. From those results, they inferred that the cooling and crystallization that eventually produced Jake_M probably occurred at pressures of several kilobars, the equivalent of the pressure at a depth of a few tens of kilometers beneath the martian surface. The modeling also suggested—particularly by analogy with terrestrial mugearites—that the martian magmas were relatively rich in dissolved water.

According to Stolper, Baker, and their colleagues, Jake_M probably originated via the melting of a relatively alkali- and water-rich martian mantle that was different from the sources of other known martian basalts. Because the primitive martian mantle is believed to have been as much as two times richer in sodium and potassium than Earth's mantle, the researchers say that, in hindsight, it might not be surprising if alkaline magmas, which are so uncommon on Earth, are more common on Mars.

Moreover, Stolper adds, "there are many hypotheses for origin of alkaline magmas on Earth that are similar to Jake_M. Perhaps the most plausible is that regions deep in the mantle become enriched in alkalis by a process known as metasomatism, in which the chemical compositions of rocks are altered by the flow of water- and carbon-dioxide-rich fluids. The existence of Jake_M may be evidence that such processes also occur in the interior of Mars."

Intriguingly, the potassium-rich nature of many of the sedimentary rocks that have been analyzed by the MSL mission may turn out to reflect the presence of such a region enriched in alkalis in the mantle underlying Gale Crater.

However, he says, "with only one rock having this odd chemical composition, we don't want to get carried away. Is it a one-off, or is it a representative of an important class of igneous rocks from the Gale Crater region? Determining the answer to this will be an important goal for the ongoing MSL mission."

"The paper by Stolper et al. shows that the internal composition of Mars is more similar to Earth than we had thought and illustrates how even a single rock can provide insight into the evolution of the planet as a whole," Grotzinger says.

The work in the paper, "The Petrochemistry of Jake_M: A Martian Mugearite," was supported by grants from the National Science Foundation, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, the Canadian Space Agency, and the Centre National d'Études Spatiales.

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New Gut Bacterium Discovered in Termite's Digestion of Wood

Caltech researchers find new species of microbe responsible for acetogenesis, an important process in termite nutrition.

When termites munch on wood, the small bits are delivered to feed a community of unique microbes living in their guts, and in a complex process involving multiple steps, these microbes turn the hard, fibrous material into a nutritious meal for the termite host. One key step uses hydrogen to convert carbon dioxide into organic carbon—a process called acetogenesis—but little is known about which gut bacteria play specific roles in the process. Utilizing a variety of experimental techniques, researchers from the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) have now discovered a previously unidentified bacterium—living on the surface of a larger microorganism in the termite gut—that may be responsible for most gut acetogenesis.

"In the termite gut, you have several hundred different species of microbes that live within a millimeter of one another. We know certain microbes are present in the gut, and we know microbes are responsible for certain functions, but until now, we didn't have a good way of knowing which microbes are doing what," says Jared Leadbetter, professor of environmental microbiology at Caltech, in whose laboratory much of the research was performed. He is also an author of a paper about the work published the week of September 16 in the online issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

Acetogenesis is the production of acetate (a source of nutrition for termites) from the carbon dioxide and hydrogen generated by gut protozoa as they break down decaying wood. In their study of "who is doing what and where," Leadbetter and his colleagues searched the entire pool of termite gut microbes to identify specific genes from organisms responsible for acetogenesis.

The researchers began by sifting through the microbes' RNA—genetic information that can provide a snapshot of the genes active at a certain point in time. Using RNA from the total pool of termite gut microbes, they searched for actively transcribed formate dehydrogenase (FDH) genes, known to encode a protein necessary for acetogenesis. Next, using a method called multiplex microfluidic digital polymerase chain reaction (digital PCR), the researchers sequestered the previously unstudied individual microbes into tiny compartments to identify the actual microbial species carrying each of the FDH genes. Some of the FDH genes were found in types of bacteria known as spirochetes—a previously predicted source of acetogenesis. Yet it appeared that these spirochetes alone could not account for all of the acetate produced in the termite gut.

Initially, the Caltech researchers were unable to identify the microorganism expressing the single most active FDH gene in the gut. However, the first authors on the study, Adam Rosenthal, a postdoctoral scholar in biology at Caltech, and Xinning Zhang (PhD '10, Environmental Science and Engineering), noticed that this gene was more abundant in the portion of the gut extract containing wood chunks and larger microbes, like protozoans. After analyzing the chunkier gut extract, they discovered that the single most active FDH gene was encoded by a previously unstudied species from a group of microbes known as the deltaproteobacteria. This was the first evidence that a substantial amount of acetate in the gut may be produced by a non-spirochete.

Because the genes from this deltaproteobacterium were found in the chunky particulate matter of the termite gut, the researchers thought that perhaps the newly identified microbe attaches to the surface of one of the chunks. To test this hypothesis, the researchers used a color-coded visualization method called hybridization chain reaction-fluorescent in situ hybridization, or HCR-FISH.

The technique—developed in the laboratory of Niles Pierce, professor of applied and computational mathematics and bioengineering at Caltech, and a coauthor on the PNAS study—allowed the researchers to simultaneously "paint" cells expressing both the active FDH gene and a gene identifying the deltoproteobacterium with different fluorescent colors simultaneously. "The microfluidics experiment suggested that the two colors should be expressed in the same location and in the same tiny cell," Leadbetter says. And, indeed, they were. "Through this approach, we were able to actually see where the new deltaproteobacterium resided. As it turns out, the cells live on the surface of a very particular hydrogen-producing protozoan."

This association between the two organisms makes sense based on what is known about the complex food web of the termite gut, Leadbetter says. "Here you have a large eukaryotic single cell—a protozoan—which is making hydrogen as it degrades wood, and you have these much smaller hydrogen-consuming deltaproteobacteria attached to its surface," he says. "So, this new acetogenic bacterium is snuggled up to its source of hydrogen just as close as it can get."

This intimate relationship, Leadbetter says, might never have been discovered relying on phylogenetic inference—the standard method for matching a function to a specific organism. "Using phylogenetic inference, we say, 'We know a lot about this hypothetical organism's relatives, so without ever seeing the organism, we're going to make guesses about who it is related to," he says. "But with the techniques in this study, we found that our initial prediction was wrong. Importantly, we have been able to determine the specific organism responsible and a location of the mystery organism, both of which appear to be extremely important in the consumption of hydrogen and turning it into a product the insect can use." These results not only identify a new source for acetogenesis in the termite gut—they also reveal the limitations of making predictions based exclusively on phylogenetic relationships.

Other Caltech coauthors on the paper titled "Localizing transcripts to single cells suggests an important role of uncultured deltaproteobacteria in the termite gut hydrogen economy," are graduate student Kaitlyn S. Lucey (environmental science and engineering), Elizabeth A. Ottesen (PhD '08, biology), graduate student Vikas Trivedi (bioengineering), and research scientist Harry M. T. Choi (PhD '10, bioengineering). This work was funded by the U.S. Department of Energy, the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health, the Programmable Molecular Technology Center within the Beckman Institute at Caltech, a Donna and Benjamin M. Rosen Center Bioengineering scholarship, and the Center for Environmental Microbial Interactions at Caltech.

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