Did Life Start On Mars? New Evidence Supports Long-Standing Theory That We Are All Martians

Are We All Martians?

Don't believe that whole "men are from Mars, women are from Venus" trope. New evidence seems to support the theory that we're all from the red planet.

For decades, some scientists have postulated that life started on Mars, with experts pointing to the ability of bacteria to withstand harsh conditions as evidence. While the theory that such bacteria hitched a ride on a meteorite and made their way to Earth may seem far-fetched, the idea has gained support from new research unveiled this week at the 2013 Goldschmidt Conference in Italy.

"The evidence seems to be building that we are actually all Martians; that life started on Mars and came to Earth on a rock," Dr. Steven Benner of the Westheimer Institute for Science and Technology said in a statement issued before his presentation at the annual geochemistry colloquium. The institute is located in Gainesville, Fla.

In Florence on Thursday, Benner is expected to report that the oxidized mineral form of the chemical element molybdenum may have been a key to the origin of life. Molybdenum is believed not to have been present on Earth at the time life originated.

"This form of molybdenum couldn’t have been available on Earth at the time life first began, because three billion years ago the surface of the Earth had very little oxygen, but Mars did," Benner said in the statement. "It’s yet another piece of evidence which makes it more likely life came to Earth on a Martian meteorite, rather than starting on this planet."

Under Benner's research, the theory of how life began hinges primarily on two paradoxes:

  • The Tar Paradox: All living organisms are composed of organic matter. But how exactly did life sprout from it? If organic molecules come in contact with a source of energy without any outside influences, the matter tends to turn into tar-like material. However, certain elements -- specifically boron and molybdenum -- are capable of stopping this "de-evolution," according to Benner. Previous analyses of martian meteorite material suggested that boron is present on Mars, and, as Benner revealed this week, molybdenum is also believed to have existed on the planet.
  • The Water Paradox: Three biological molecules are believed to be essential for life: DNA, RNA and proteins. However, water is known to be corrosive to these macromolecules. Since water likely covered a larger portion of Earth than Mars at the time, the red planet would have been a more suitable environment for the origin of life. "How is it possible that the chemicals that we now have supporting modern life, which is so unstable in water, could have arisen in water?" Benner said last year, according to Discovery News.

Benner's theory that life originated on Mars is unproven, of course. But it's possible that it could be substantiated by evidence collected from the red planet. A team from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology is trying to do just that feat by building a detection tool capable of taking samples on Mars and analyzing them for DNA and RNA.

“It’s a long shot," MIT researcher Christopher Carr said in an announcement of the Search for Extraterrestrial Genomes project in 2011, "but if we go to Mars and find life that’s related to us, we could have originated on Mars."

"Or if it started here," he said, "it could have been transferred to Mars."

As WGBH Radio reported, Carr wants NASA to support the investigation and allow the tool aboard its next Mars Exploration Rover mission, which is set to launch in 2020.

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