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Building blocks of life found on Mars

December 12, 2007 14:11 IST

Organic compounds containing carbon and hydrogen form the building blocks of all life on Earth. Now, scientists have found the same on Mars.

The scientists at the United States-based Carnegie Institution's geophysical laboratory have conducted a research and found for the first time that building blocks of life formed on Mars early in its history, the ScienceDaily reported on Wednesday.

"We now know that Mars can produce organic compounds. Organic material occurs within tiny spheres of carbonate minerals in both the Martian and Earth rocks. We found that the organic material is closely associated with the iron oxide mineral magnetite, which is the key to understanding how the compounds formed," said lead researcher Andrew Steele.

The scientists came to the conclusion after analysing organic material and minerals in the Martian meteorite Allan Hills 84001, and comparing the results with data from related rocks found on Svalbard, Norway.

The Svalbard samples occur in volcanoes that erupted in a freezing Arctic climate about one million years ago, possibly mimicking conditions on early Mars.

In fact, the organic material in the Svalbard rocks formed when volcanoes erupted under freezing conditions. During cooling, magnetite acted as a catalyst to form organic compounds from fluids rich in carbon dioxide and water. This event occurred under conditions where no forms of life are likely to exist.

The researchers found the similar association of carbonate, magnetite and organic material in the Martian meteorite ALH 84001, which shows that the organic material did not originate from Martian life forms, but formed directly from chemical reactions within the rock.

The organic material in the Allan Hills meteorite may have formed during two different events. The first, similar to the Svalbard samples, was during rapid cooling of fluids on Mars. A second event produced organic material from carbonate minerals during impact ejection of ALH 84001 from Mars.

According to co-researcher Hans EF Amundsen from Earth and Planetary Exploration Services, "The results of this study show that volcanic activity in a freezing climate can produce organic compounds. This implies that the building blocks of life can form on cold rocky planets throughout the universe."

"Our finding sets the stage for the Mars Science Laboratory Mission in 2009. Part of the mission's goal is to identify organic compounds, their sources, and to detect molecules relevant to life. We know that they are there. We just have to find them," said Steele.

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