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Life’s building blocks formed on Mars: study

Dec. 11, 2007
Courtesy Carnegie Institution
and World Science staff

Sci­en­tists are re­port­ing that the mo­lec­u­lar build­ing blocks of life formed on Mars long ago—find­ings that sug­gest these mo­le­cules could form on any cold, rocky pla­net.

Or­gan­ic molecules, con­tain­ing car­bon and hy­dro­gen, are the ma­jor com­po­nents of all Earthly life. In a new stu­dy, re­search­ers with the Car­ne­gie In­sti­tu­tion in Wash­ing­ton, D.C. an­a­lyzed or­gan­ic com­pounds in a Mar­tian me­te­or­ite. Sci­en­tists had pre­vi­ously spec­u­lat­ed that these might have land­ed on the red plan­et thanks to me­te­or­ite im­pacts there. The new study in­stead con­clud­ed that the ma­te­ri­als probably formed on Mars it­self, pos­sibly as a re­sult of vol­can­ic erup­tions. 

The meteorite ALH 84001 (Courtesy Johnson Space Center)


The find­ings “show that vol­can­ic ac­ti­vity in a freez­ing cli­mate can pro­duce or­gan­ic com­pounds,” said the in­sti­tu­tion’s Hans Amund­sen, one of the re­search­ers. “This im­plies that build­ing blocks of life can form on cold rocky plan­ets through­out the Un­iverse.”

The in­ves­ti­ga­tors com­pared the me­te­or­ite, called Al­lan Hills 84001, with rocks from Sval­bard, Nor­way. These oc­cur in vol­ca­noes that erupted in a freez­ing Arc­tic cli­mate about a mil­lion years ago, pos­sibly mim­ick­ing con­di­tions on early Mars, the sci­en­tists said.

“Or­gan­ic ma­te­ri­al oc­curs with­in ti­ny spheres of car­bonate min­er­als in both the Mar­tian and Earth rocks,” said An­drew Steele, lead au­thor of the stu­dy. The sci­en­tists, he added, found the or­gan­ic ma­te­ri­al in close as­so­ci­a­tion with a min­er­al called mag­netite—“the key to un­der­stand­ing how these com­pounds formed.”

When ma­te­ri­al blast­ed from Sval­bard vol­ca­noes cooled off, mag­net­ite acted as a cat­a­lyst, or chem­i­cal in­stiga­tor, for the forma­t­ion of or­gan­ic com­pounds from flu­ids rich in car­bon di­ox­ide and wa­ter, said the re­search­ers. “The si­m­i­lar as­socia­t­ion of car­bonate, mag­net­ite and or­gan­ic ma­te­ri­al in the Mar­tian me­te­or­ite... is very com­pelling,” they added in an an­nounce­ment of their find­ings Tues­day. “This is the first study to show that Mars is ca­pa­ble of form­ing or­gan­ic com­pounds at all.” The study is pub­lished in the Sep­tem­ber is­sue of the re­search jour­nal Me­te­or­it­ic & Plan­e­tary Sci­ence.

Steele said the work “sets the stage for the Mars Sci­ence Lab­o­r­a­to­ry mis­sion in 2009”—a NASA rov­er de­signed to help as­sess wheth­er Mars ev­er could, or can, sup­port mi­cro­bi­al life. One of its goals is to iden­ti­fy or­gan­ic com­pounds and their sources, said Steele, who is part of the mis­sion team. “We know that they are there. We just have to find them.”


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Scientists are reporting that the molecular building blocks of life formed on Mars early in its history—findings that suggest these molecules could form on any cold, rocky planet. Organic molecules, containing carbon and hydrogen, are the major components of all Earthly life. In a new study, researchers with the Carnegie Institution in Washington, D.C. analyzed organic compounds in a Martian meteorite. Scientists had previously speculated that these might have landed on the red planet thanks to meteorite impacts there. The new study instead concluded that the materials probably formed on Mars itself, possibly as a result of volcanic eruptions. The findings “show that volcanic activity in a freezing climate can produce organic compounds,” said the institution’s Hans Amundsen, one of the researchers. “This implies that building blocks of life can form on cold rocky planets throughout the Universe.” The investigators compared the meteorite, called Allan Hills 84001, with rocks found on Svalbard, Norway. These occur in volcanoes that erupted in a freezing Arctic climate about a million years ago, possibly mimicking conditions on early Mars, the scientists said. “Organic material occurs within tiny spheres of carbonate minerals in both the Martian and Earth rocks,” said Andrew Steele, lead author of the study. The scientists, he added, found that the organic material was closely associated with a mineral called magnetite—”the key to understanding how these compounds formed.” When material blasted from Svalbard volcanoes cooled off, magnetite acted as a catalyst, or chemical instigation, for the formation of organic compounds from fluids rich in carbon dioxide and water, said the researchers. “The similar association of carbonate, magnetite and organic material in the Martian meteorite ALH 84001 is very compelling,” they added in an announcement of their findings Tuesday. “This is the first study to show that Mars is capable of forming organic compounds at all.” The study is published in the September issue of the research journal Meteoritics & Planetary Science. Steele said the work “sets the stage for the Mars Science Laboratory mission in 2009”—a NASA rover designed to help assess whether Mars ever could, or can, support microbial life. One of its goals is to identify organic compounds and their sources, said Steele, who is part of the mission team. “We know that they are there. We just have to find them.”