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Meteorite yields evidence of primitive life on early Mars

STANFORD -- A NASA research team of scientists at the NASA Johnson Space Center and at Stanford University has found evidence that strongly suggests primitive life may have existed on Mars more than 3.6 billion years ago.

The NASA-funded team found the first organic molecules thought to be of Martian origin; several mineral features characteristic of biological activity; and possible microscopic fossils of primitive, bacteria-like organisms inside an ancient Martian rock that fell to Earth as a meteorite. This array of indirect evidence of past life will be reported in the Aug. 16 issue of the journal Science, presenting the investigation to the scientific community at large to reach a future consensus that will either confirm or deny the team's conclusion.

The two-year investigation was co-led by planetary scientists David McKay, Everett Gibson and Kathie Thomas-Keprta of Lockheed-Martin, all from JSC, with the major collaboration of a Stanford team headed by Professor of Chemistry Richard N. Zare, as well as six other NASA and university research partners.

"There is not any one finding that leads us to believe that this is evidence of past life on Mars. Rather, it is a combination of many things that we have found," McKay said. "They include Stanford's detection of an apparently unique pattern of organic molecules, carbon compounds that are the basis of life. We also found several unusual mineral phases that are known products of primitive microscopic organisms on Earth. Structures that could be microscopic fossils seem to support all of this. The relationship of all of these things in terms of location ­ within a few hundred thousandths of an inch of one another ­ is the most compelling evidence."

"It is very difficult to prove life existed 3.6 billion years ago on Earth, let alone on Mars," Zare said. "The existing standard of proof, which we think we have met, includes having an accurately dated sample that contains native microfossils, mineralogical features characteristic of life and evidence of complex organic chemistry."

"For two years, we have applied state-of-the-art technology to perform these analyses, and we believe we have found quite reasonable evidence of past life on Mars," Gibson added. "We don't claim that we have conclusively proven it. We are putting this evidence out to the scientific community for other investigators to verify, enhance, attack ­ disprove if they can ­ as part of the scientific process. Then, within a year or two, we hope to resolve the question one way or the other."

"What we have found to be the most reasonable interpretation is of such radical nature that it will only be accepted or rejected after other groups either confirm our findings or overturn them," McKay added.

The igneous rock in the 4.2-pound, potato-sized meteorite has been age-dated to about 4.5 billion years, the period when the planet Mars formed. The rock is believed to have originated underneath the Martian surface and to have been extensively fractured by impacts, as meteorites bombarded the planets in the early inner solar system. Between 3.6 billion and 4 billion years ago, a time when it is generally thought that the planet was warmer and wetter, water is believed to have penetrated fractures in the subsurface rock, possibly forming an underground water system.

Because the water was saturated with carbon dioxide from the Martian atmosphere, carbonate minerals were deposited in the fractures. The team's findings indicate living organisms also may have assisted in the formation of the carbonate, and some remains of the microscopic organisms may have become fossilized, in a fashion similar to the formation of fossils in limestone on Earth. Then, 16 million years ago, a huge comet or asteroid struck Mars, ejecting a piece of the rock from its subsurface location with enough force to escape the planet. For millions of years, the chunk of rock floated through space. It encountered Earth's atmosphere 13,000 years ago and fell in Antarctica as a meteorite.

It is in the tiny globs of carbonate that the researchers found a number of features that can be interpreted as suggesting past life. Stanford researchers found easily detectable amounts of organic molecules called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) concentrated in the vicinity of the carbonate. Researchers at JSC found mineral compounds commonly associated with microscopic organisms and the possible microscopic fossil structures.

The largest of the possible fossils are less than 1/100th the diameter of a human hair, and most are about 1/1000th the diameter of a human hair ­ small enough that it would take about a thousand laid end-to-end to span the dot at the end of this sentence. Some are egg-shaped while others are tubular. In appearance and size, the structures are strikingly similar to microscopic fossils of the tiniest bacteria found on Earth.

The meteorite, called ALH84001, was found in 1984 in Allan Hills ice field, Antarctica, by an annual expedition of the National Science Foundation's Antarctic Meteorite Program. It was preserved for study in JSC's Meteorite Processing Laboratory and its possible Martian origin was not recognized until 1993. It is one of only 12 meteorites identified so far that match the unique Martian chemistry measured by the Viking spacecraft that landed on Mars in 1976. ALH84001 is by far the oldest of the 12 Martian meteorites, more than three times as old as any other.

Many of the team's findings were made possible only because of very recent technological advances in high-resolution scanning electron microscopy and laser mass spectrometry. Only a few years ago, many of the features that they report were undetectable. Although past studies of this meteorite and others of Martian origin failed to detect evidence of past life, they were generally performed using lower levels of magnification, without the benefit of the technology used in this research. The recent discovery of extremely small bacteria on Earth, called nanobacteria, prompted the team to perform this work at a much finer scale than past efforts.

The nine authors of the Science report include McKay, Gibson and Thomas-Keprta of JSC; Christopher Romanek, formerly a National Research Council post-doctoral fellow at JSC who is now a staff scientist at the Savannah River Ecology Laboratory at the University of Georgia; Hojatollah Vali, a National Research Council post-doctoral fellow at JSC and a staff scientist at McGill University, Montreal, Quebec, Canada; and Zare, graduate students Simon J. Clemett and Claude R. Maechling and post-doctoral student Xavier Chillier from the Stanford University Department of Chemistry.

The team of researchers includes a wide variety of expertise, including microbiology, mineralogy, analytical techniques, geochemistry and organic chemistry, and the analysis crossed all of these disciplines.

Further details on the findings presented in the Science article include:

  • Researchers at Stanford University used a laser mass spectrometer ­ the most sensitive instrument of its type in the world ­ to look for the presence of the common family of organic molecules called PAHs. When microorganisms die, the complex organic molecules that they contain frequently degrade into PAHs. PAHs are often associated with ancient sedimentary rocks, coals and petroleum on Earth and can be common air pollutants. Not only did the scientists find PAHs in easily detectable amounts in ALH84001, but they found that these molecules were concentrated in the vicinity of the carbonate globules. This finding appears consistent with the proposition that they are a result of the fossilization process.
  • In addition, the unique composition of the meteorite's PAHs is consistent with what the scientists expect from the fossilization of very primitive microorganisms. On Earth, PAHs virtually always occur in thousands of forms, but, in the meteorite, they are dominated by only about a half-dozen different compounds. The simplicity of this mixture, combined with the lack of lightweight PAHs like napthalene, also differs substantially from that of PAHs previously measured in non-Martian meteorites.
  • The team found unusual compounds ­ iron sulfides and magnetite ­ that are commonly produced by anaerobic bacteria and other microscopic organisms on Earth. The compounds were found in locations directly associated with the fossil-like structures and carbonate globules in the meteorite. Extreme conditions ­ conditions very unlikely to have been encountered by the meteorite ­ would have been required to produce these compounds in close proximity to one another if life were not involved. The carbonate also contained tiny grains of magnetite that are almost identical to magnetic fossil remnants left by certain bacteria found on Earth. Other minerals commonly associated with biological activity on Earth were found in the carbonate as well.
  • The formation of the carbonate or fossils by living organisms while the meteorite was in the Antarctic was deemed unlikely for several reasons. The carbonate was age dated using a parent-daughter isotope method and found to be 3.6 billion years old, and the organic molecules were first detected well within the ancient carbonate. In addition, the team analyzed representative samples of other meteorites from Antarctica and found no evidence of fossil-like structures, organic molecules or possible biologically produced compounds and minerals similar to those in the ALH84001 meteorite. The composition and location of PAHs ­ organic molecules ­ found in the meteorite also appeared to confirm that the possible evidence of life was extraterrestrial. No PAHs were found in the meteorite's exterior crust, but the concentration of PAHs increased in the meteorite's interior to levels higher than ever found in Antarctica. Higher concentrations of PAHs likely would have been found on the exterior of the meteorite, decreasing toward the interior, if the organic molecules are the result of contamination of the meteorite on Earth.



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