Lipid membranes are a key component of contemporary living systems and are thought to have been essential to the origin of life. Most research on membranes has focused on situations restricted to ambient physiological or benchtop conditions. However, the influence of more extreme conditions, such as the deep subsurface on Earth or extraterrestrial environments are less well understood. The deep subsurface environments of Mars, for instance, may harbor high concentrations of chaotropic salts in brines, yet we know little about how these conditions would influence the habitability of such environments for cellular life. Here, we investigated the combined effects of high concentrations of salts, including sodium and magnesium perchlorate and sulfate, and high hydrostatic pressure on the stability and structure of model biomembranes of varying complexity. To this end, a variety of biophysical techniques have been applied, which include calorimetry, fluorescence spectroscopies, small-angle X-ray scattering, dynamic light scattering, and microscopy techniques. We show that the structure and phase behavior of lipid membranes is sensitively dictated by the nature of the salt, in particular its anion and its concentration. We demonstrate that, with the exception of magnesium perchlorate, which can also induce cubic lipid arrangements, long-chain saturated lipid bilayer structures can still persist at high salt concentrations across a range of pressures. The lateral organization of complex heterogeneous raft-like membranes is affected by all salts. For simple, in particular bacterial membrane-type bilayer systems with unsaturated chains, vesicular structures are still stable at Martian brine conditions, also up to the kbar pressure range, demonstrating the potential compatibility of environments containing such ionic and pressure extremes to lipid-encapsulated life.
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