Goldschmidt Geochemistry Conference premiers study suggests life came, Mars

In popular culture, Martians are depicted as green, cold and slimy creatures with elongated fingers and eyeballs. If a new study is to be believed, all we need to do is look into a mirror to see the real Martians.

According to a new study presented at the annual Goldschmidt Geochemistry Conference in Florence, Italy, there is compelling evidence that life on Earth received a vital push from Mars.

Steve Benner from The Westheimer Institute for Science and Technology in Florida, said the conditions here on Earth 3.5 to 4 billion years ago would have made it impossible for life to occur on its own.

The basis of Benner’s research is the theory of abiogenesis, where life spontaneously formed from organic compounds, which were also formed spontaneously. This is commonly accepted among many scientists. However, scientists don’t know whether abiogenesis occurred on Earth, or somewhere else and was then deposited here via meteorite, known also as panspermia.

Benner stated that around 3.5 to 4 billion years ago the conditions on Mars for abiogenesis would have been perfect. This is because Benner believes that RNA could have only been created around highly oxidized molybdenum and boron.

In a nutshell, the building blocks for RNA, crucial for basic life, were non-existent on Earth, Brenner said. Earth didn’t have an oxygen rich atmosphere 3 billion years ago, which would make the form of molybdenum unavailable. Also, boron couldn’t have been available either since the mineral is only found in extremely dry places.

The key point of his research is to show that since the materials for RNA was not present on Earth during that period of time, it had to have come from Mars. Benner believes that Mars had an atmosphere and dry areas enough where boron could form in high concentrations. Given the conditions, he hypothesizes that if RNA-based organisms did actually form on Mars, then it is possible that life on Earth came from Mars because of the short distance.

While the public announcement of his research has been gaining ground, not everyone is completely on board. Both Patrick J. Lewis, Ph.D., associate professor of paleobiology and Chris Randle, Ph.D., associate professor of molecular systematics at Sam Houston State University weren’t completely on board but didn’t rule-out the idea.

“On a personal level, I’d say it’s quite plausible,” Lewis said. “But as a scientist, I’d say there are a few holes that need to be addressed before everyone can jump on it”.

Lewis disagreed with Benner’s claims that life was non-existent 3.5 to 4 billion years ago, and said that life can be found in the most inhospitable of places even today.

“From ancient subterranean lakes in Antarctica, to geysers, and even the ocean floor, life can happen just about anywhere,” Lewis said.

Lewis also mentioned the Miller Urey experiment, which he said recreated the primitive conditions on Earth from billions of years ago and proved that basic life could occur back then. Lewis said this experiment punches a hole in Benner’s claim that life couldn’t have existed then.

Randle is also hesitant to accept Benner’s claims on face value.

“His findings haven’t been published nor peer reviewed yet,”,Randle said. “So, we’ll have to wait and see”.

Randle begins his skepticism of Benner’s claim by saying a peer-review of the study is the first step and to “take it with a grain of salt.”

“[First,] one of the problems I’ve always had with panspermia is that it refutes the principle of parsimony,” he said. “To say that the precursor of life originated on Mars and then came to Earth assumes more than explains. In other words, it has low explanatory power”.

Randle also said there are other ways for ribose, an important building block for RNA, to occur without molybdenum or boron.

“There was a paper published by Gerland and Sutherland in ‘Nature’ back in 2009 demonstrating that you can (create) nucleotides in the absence of molybdenum and boron,” Randle said. “I’m sure Benner has dealt with that. But again, since his work isn’t published yet I don’t know what he has to say about that.”

While Benner’s research has a lot of scientists pondering the beginnings of life on Earth, many people’s biggest question is this: If Benner’s theory is true, what happened to life on Mars?

“That is something the Ray Bradbury within me would love to find out,” Lewis said.

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