Mars Organic Material Discovery Offers Clues to Earth’s Life Origins

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By Lydia Amazouz Published on July 7, 2024 10:30
Mars Organic Material Discovery Offers Clues to Earth's Life Origins

A recent discovery on Mars has shed light on the possible origins of life on Earth. Researchers have found that organic material present in the sediment of ancient Martian lakebeds points to widespread carbon chemistry across the red planet.

This finding provides valuable insights into how the ingredients for life might have ended up on our own planet billions of years ago.

Discovery of Organic Material on Mars

A decade ago, a robotic rover on Mars unearthed a crucial piece of evidence by discovering organic material in the sediment of ancient lakebeds. This discovery indicated that Mars has a rich presence of carbon chemistry, raising intriguing questions about the origins of these organic molecules. While the presence of organic material does not necessarily imply the existence of alien life, it opens up fascinating possibilities about the processes that could produce such molecules.

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Planetary scientist Yuichiro Ueno of the Tokyo Institute of Technology led the team that made this discovery. The researchers found that carbon dioxide in Mars's atmosphere reacts with ultraviolet sunlight, forming a mist of carbon molecules that descend onto the planet's surface. "Such carbon-based complex molecules are the prerequisite of life, the building blocks of life, one might say," explained chemist Matthew Johnson from the University of Copenhagen. He further clarified that these organic molecules form through atmospheric photochemical reactions without any biological intervention.

The Role of Photolysis

Photolysis, a process where molecules are broken apart by light, plays a significant role in the formation of organic components on Mars. This process produces carbon monoxide and oxygen atoms from carbon dioxide and works faster on lighter isotopes. Consequently, molecules containing carbon-12 deplete faster than those with carbon-13, leaving an 'excess' of carbon-13 dioxide behind. The notion that photolysis contributes to the organic chemistry found on Mars has been supported by simulations and subsequent investigations.

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Johnson and his colleagues published a paper in 2013 hypothesizing that photolysis could explain the presence of organic molecules on Mars. The recent findings provide hard evidence that supports this hypothesis. The atmospheric carbon-13 enrichment was first identified a few years ago when researchers analyzed a Martian meteorite that landed in Antarctica. "The smoking gun here is that the ratio of carbon isotopes in it exactly matches our predictions in the quantum chemical simulations," Johnson said.

The Meteorite Allan Hills 84001, From Which The Atmospheric Isotopes Were Derived. (nasa)

Confirmation from Martian Meteorite

A critical piece of evidence was found in data obtained by the Curiosity rover in the Gale crater. The rover's samples of carbonate minerals showed a carbon-13 depletion that perfectly mirrored the carbon-13 enrichment found in the Martian meteorite.

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This finding confirmed that the organic material on Mars was formed from carbon monoxide produced by photolysis. "There is no other way to explain both the carbon-13 depletion in the organic material and the enrichment in the Martian meteorite, both relative to the composition of volcanic CO2 emitted on Mars," Johnson explained.

The confirmation from the Curiosity rover provides strong evidence that photolysis is responsible for the formation of organic material on Mars. This discovery also hints at a possible origin for organic material on Earth. Billions of years ago, Venus, Earth, and Mars all had very similar atmospheres, suggesting that the same processes likely occurred on our home planet.

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Implications for Earth's Origins

The implications of this discovery extend beyond Mars. The study suggests that the organic material found on Mars could provide clues about the origins of life on Earth. During the early stages of the solar system, Earth, Venus, and Mars had similar atmospheric conditions. The processes that led to the formation of organic molecules on Mars could have also occurred on Earth, laying the groundwork for the emergence of life.

"We have not yet found this 'smoking gun' material here on Earth to prove that the process took place. Perhaps because Earth's surface is much more alive, geologically and literally, and therefore constantly changing," Johnson said. "But it is a big step that we have now found it on Mars, from a time when the two planets were very similar."

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