The origin of life on Earth is one of science’s great mysteries, but new research indicates the answer is so simple that not only could a high school chemistry class replicate it, but it could have been occur once on ancient Mars.
The study, carried out by researchers from the Foundation for Applied Molecular Evolution (FAME) and published in the journal Astrobiologyclaims that basalt lava glass was key to the formation of RNA, a simpler analog of DNA that many believe is a necessary precursor to the development of life.
“Communities studying the origins of life have diverged in recent years,” said study co-author Steven Benner. statement “A community revisits classic questions with complex chemical schemes that require difficult chemistry performed by skilled chemists.”
Benner and his colleagues say the answer was much simpler. RNA molecules as long as 200 nucleotides form naturally when nucleoside triphosphates interact with basalt glass lava as they percolate through it.
“Basalt glass was everywhere on Earth back then,” said Stephen Mojzsis, an Earth scientist and study participant. “For several hundred million years after the formation of the Moon, frequent impacts coupled with abundant volcanism on the young planet formed molten basalt lava, the source of basalt glass. The impacts also evaporated the water to give dry land, providing aquifers where RNA could have formed.”
Impacts of iron-nickel meteors on the surface of the primeval land also reduced the atmosphere and created conditions known to facilitate the creation of RNA molecules.
“” The beauty of this model is its simplicity. It can be tested by high school students in chemistry class,” said Jan Špaček, who works on detecting extraterrestrial genetic polymers on Mars and was not involved in the study. “Mix the ingredients, wait a few days and detect RNA. “
Another important part of the chemical equation is borate, also known as borax, which drives the creation of ribose, the R in RNA. Borate is also produced from basalt which would have been everywhere on early Earth.
Could this be the key to finding ancient life on Mars?
There is little evidence that life currently exists on March, but that may not always have been the case. When Mars was young, around 4 billion years ago, it may have harbored conditions very similar to those of early Earth, and whether the chemical processes behind the emergence of life on Earth are as simple as the new research suggests, then it’s not only possible, but likely similar processes would have been done on ancient Mars.
The problem is that these early conditions did not develop in the same way as conditions on Earth. The Earth has an active magnetic field, produced by the dynamo of the Earth’s solid iron core surrounded by an outer core of molten iron-nickel. This shielded Earth’s atmosphere from solar winds which, in turn, shielded Earth from harmful UV rays that would have killed primordial life on the surface.
Mars has no active magnetic field, so its atmosphere was slowly stripped away by the Sun, making the planet’s surface inhospitable to life as we know it, and it’s likely to have been that way for ages. billions of years.
But just as Mars lacks an active magnetic field, it also lacks the type of plate tectonics that Earth has, which means that the basalt rock on its surface has not been recycled into the mantle like the made the ancient earth’s crust. This means that signs of these primordial processes may still exist on the surface of Mars and we may be able to detect them.
“If life emerged on Earth via this simple path, then it likely also emerged on Mars,” Benner said. “That makes it even more important to search for life on Mars as soon as possible.”
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