Recent studies of continental carbonates revealed that carbonates with similar fabrics can be formed either by biotic, biologically-induced, biologically-influenced or purely abiotic processes, or a combination of all. The aim of this research is to advance knowledge on the formation of carbonates precipitated (or diagenetically altered) in extreme, continental environments by studying biotic versus abiotic mechanisms of crystallization, and to contribute to the astrobiology debate around terrestrial analogues of Martian extreme environments. Both fossil (upper Pleistocene to Holocene) and active carbonate spring mounds from the Great Artesian Basin (South Australia) have been investigated. These carbonates consist of low-Mg to high-Mg calcite tufa. Four facies have been described: (i) carbonate mudstone/wackestone; (ii) phytohermal framestone/boundstone; (iii) micrite boundstone; and (iv) coarsely crystalline boundstone. The presence of filaments encrusted by micrite, rich in organic compounds, including ultraviolet-protectants, in phytohermal framestone/boundstone and micrite boundstone is clear evidence of the existence of microbial mats at the time of deposition. In contrast, peloidal micrite, despite commonly being considered a microbial precipitate, is not directly associated with filaments in the Great Artesian Basin mounds. It has probably formed from nanocrystal aggregation on colloid particulate. Thus, where biofilms have been documented, it is likely that bacteria catalyzed the development of fabrics. It is less certain that microbes induced calcium carbonate precipitation elsewhere. Trace elements, including rare earth element distribution from laminated facies, highlight strongly evaporative settings (for example, high Li contents). Carbon dioxide degassing and evaporation are two of the main drivers for an increase in fluid alkalinity, resulting in precipitation of carbonates. Hence, although the growth of certain fabrics is fostered by the presence of microbial mats, the formation of carbonate crystals might be independent from it and mainly driven by extrinsic factors. More generally, biological processes may be responsible for fabric and facies development in micritic boundstone whilst micrite nucleation and growth are driven by abiotic factors. Non-classical crystallization pathways (aggregation and fusion of nanoparticles from nucleation clusters) may be more common than previously thought in spring carbonate and this should be carefully considered to avoid misinterpretation of certain fabrics as by-products of life. It is proposed here that the term ‘organic-compound catalyzed mineralization’ should be used for crystal growth in the presence of organic compounds when dealing with astrobiological problems. This term would account for the possibility of multiple crystallization pathways (including non-classical crystallization) that occurred directly from an aqueous solution without the direct influence of microbial mats.
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