The origin of life on Earth is one of science’s great mysteries, but new research says the answer is so simple that not only could a high school chemistry class reproduce it, but it could someday be on ancient Mars. have occurred.
The study, produced by researchers at the Foundation for Applied Molecular Evolution (FAME) and published in the journal Astrobiologyclaims that basaltic lava glass was key to the formation of RNA, a simpler analog of DNA that many believe was a necessary precursor to the development of life.
“Communities studying the origin of life have diverged in recent years,” said Steven Benner, a co-author of the study. pronunciation “A community is rethinking classic questions involving complex chemical schemes requiring 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 seep through.
“Basaltic glass was everywhere on Earth at the time,” said Stephen Mojzsis, an Earth scientist and participant in the study. “For several hundred million years after the moon formed, frequent impacts combined with abundant volcanism on the young planet formed molten basalt lava, the source of the basalt glass. Impacts also evaporated water to give dry land, creating aquifers where RNA had can be formed.”
The impacts of iron-nickel meteors on the surface of the early earth also reduced the atmosphere and created conditions known to facilitate the production 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 to detect alien genetic polymers on Mars and was not involved in the research. “Mix the ingredients, wait a few days and detect the RNA. †
Another important element in the chemical equation is borate, also known as borax, which controls the production of ribose, the R in RNA. Borate is also produced from the basalt that would have been all over the early Earth.
Could this be the key to finding ancient life on Mars?
There is little evidence that life currently exists on Mars, but that may not always have been the case. When Mars was young, some 4 billion years ago, it may have had very similar conditions to early Earth, and if the chemical processes behind the origin of life on Earth are as simple as the new research indicates, then it’s not only possible, but likely that similar processes would have been carried out on ancient Mars.
The problem is that those 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 protected Earth’s atmosphere from the solar winds which in turn shielded Earth from the harmful UV rays that would have killed native life on its surface.
Mars has no active magnetic field, so its atmosphere has been slowly stripped away by the sun, making the planet’s surface inhospitable to life as we know it, and it’s likely been that way for billions of years.
But just as Mars doesn’t have an active magnetic field, it also lacks the kind of plate tectonics Earth has, meaning the basalt rock over its surface hasn’t been carried back to the mantle like Earth’s ancient crust. That means signs of these primordial processes still exist on the surface of Mars, and we may be able to detect them.
†If life originated on Earth through this simple path, then it likely originated on Mars,” Benner said. “This makes it even more important to look for life on Mars as soon as possible.”
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