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International Journal of Geophysics
Volume 2016 (2016), Article ID 2410573, 50 pages
Research Article

Discovery of Naturally Etched Fission Tracks and Alpha-Recoil Tracks in Submarine Glasses: Reevaluation of a Putative Biosignature for Earth and Mars

1Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences, University of Alberta, 1-26 Earth Science Building, Edmonton, Alberta, Canada T6G 2E3
2NASA Ames Research Center, Exobiology Branch, MS 239-4, Moffett Field, CA 94035-1000, USA

Received 3 October 2015; Accepted 8 December 2015

Academic Editor: Ghaleb H. Jarrar

Copyright © 2016 Jason E. French and David F. Blake. This is an open access article distributed under the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.


Over the last two decades, conspicuously “biogenic-looking” corrosion microtextures have been found to occur globally within volcanic glass of the in situ oceanic crust, ophiolites, and greenstone belts dating back to ~3.5 Ga. These so-called “tubular” and “granular” microtextures are widely interpreted to represent bona fide microbial trace fossils; however, possible nonbiological origins for these complex alteration microtextures have yet to be explored. Here, we reevaluate the origin of these enigmatic microtextures from a strictly nonbiological standpoint, using a case study on submarine glasses from the western North Atlantic Ocean (DSDP 418A). By combining petrographic and SEM observations of corrosion microtextures at the glass-palagonite interface, considerations of the tectonic setting, measurement of U and Th concentrations of fresh basaltic glass by ICP-MS, and theoretical modelling of the present-day distribution of radiation damage in basaltic glass caused by radioactive decay of U and Th, we reinterpret these enigmatic microtextures as the end product of the preferential corrosion/dissolution of radiation damage (alpha-recoil tracks and fission tracks) in the glass by seawater, possibly combined with pressure solution etch-tunnelling. Our findings have important implications for geomicrobiology, astrobiological exploration of Mars, and understanding of the long-term breakdown of nuclear waste glass.