Time-of-flight secondary ion mass spectrometry (ToF-SIMS) is a technique designed to analyze the composition and spatial distribution of molecules and chemical structures on surfaces. These capabilities have generated much interest in its use in geobiology, in particular for the characterization of organic biomarkers (molecular biosignatures) at the microscopic level. We here discuss the strengths, weaknesses, and potential of ToF-SIMS for biomarker analyses with a focus on applications in geobiology, including biogeochemistry, organic geochemistry, geomicrobiology, and paleobiology. After describing the analytical principles of ToF-SIMS, we discuss issues of biomarker spectral formation and interpretation. Then, key applications of ToF-SIMS to soft (microbial matter, cells), hard (microbial mineral precipitates), and liquid (petroleum) samples relevant in geobiology are reviewed. Finally, we examine the potential of ToF-SIMS in biomarker research and the current limitations and obstacles for which further development would be beneficial to the field.


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  • Article Type: Review Article
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