The identification of reliable biomarkers, such as amino acids, is key for the search of extraterrestrial life. A large number of microorganisms metabolize, synthesize, take up and excrete amino acids as part of the amino acid metabolism during aerobic and/or anaerobic respiration or in fermentation. In this work, we investigated whether the anaerobic microbial metabolism of amino acids could leave a secondary biosignature indicating biological activity in the environment around the cells. The observed fingerprints would reflect the physiological capabilities of the specific microbial community under investigation. The metabolic processing of an amino acid mixture by two distinct anaerobic microbial communities collected from Islinger Mühlbach (ISM) and Sippenauer Moor (SM), Germany was examined. The amino acid mixture contained L-alanine, β-alanine, L-aspartic acid, DL-proline, L-leucine, L-valine, glycine, L-phenylalanine and L-isoleucine. In parallel, an amino acid spiked medium without microorganisms was used as a control to determine abiotic changes over time. Liquid chromatography mass spectrometry (LC-MS) was used to track amino acid changes over time. When comparing to the control samples that did not show significant changes of amino acids concentrations over time, we found that glycine was almost completely depleted from both microbial samples to less than 3% after the first two weeks- This results indicates a preferential use of this simple amino acid by these microbial communities. Although glycine degradation can be caused by abiotic processes, these results show that its preferential depletion in an environment would be consistent with the presence of life. We found changes in most other amino acids that varied between amino acids and communities, suggesting complex dynamics with no clear universal pattern that might be used as a signature of life. However, marked increases in amino acids, caused by cellular synthesis and release into the extracellular environment (e.g., alanine), were observed and could be considered a signature of metabolic activity. We conclude, that substantial anomalous enhancements of some amino acids against the expected abiotic background concentration may be an agnostic signature of the presence of biological processes.
AR acknowledges the support from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under the Marie Skłodowska-Curie grant agreement No. 750353. MASE is supported by European Community’s Seventh Framework Programme (FP7/2007-2013) under Grant Agreement n° 607297. Charles Cockell acknowledges the Science and Technology Facilities Council (grant ST/V000586/1).