Curiosity Has Discovered Something That Raises More Questions About Life on Mars

Image: NASA/JPL-CALTECH

Everyone from David Bowie to astrobiologists to tinfoil hat believers has pondered the question: is there life on Mars? While we’ve found direct evidence of liquid water on the Red Planet, we have yet to find any microbes there. But not all hope is lost—new discoveries from NASA’s Curiosity rover have brought forth more compelling evidence of habitability on Mars. I mean, in theory, all that life has been dead for billions of years, but still.

Researchers studying Curiosity’s data say the rover has detected boron in the 3.8 billion year-old Gale crater. Boron is an element that can catalyze the formation of RNA—or ribonucleic acid, the single-stranded carbon copy of DNA found in all living cells—when dissolved in water. The boron was discovered in calcium sulfate mineral veins suggestive of ancient groundwater, so the team believes this could mean at least some of the water once present in Gale Crater had conditions favorable to the emergence of life. The findings have been published in the Geophysical Research Letters.

“Because borates may play an important role in making RNA—one of the building blocks of life—finding boron on Mars further opens the possibility that life could have once arisen on the planet,” the study’s lead author, Patrick Gasda, a postdoctoral researcher at Los Alamos National Laboratory in Los Alamos, New Mexico, said in a statement. “Borates are one possible bridge from simple organic molecules to RNA. Without RNA, you have no life. The presence of boron tells us that, if organics were present on Mars, these chemical reactions could have occurred.”

Hopefully, NASA’s 2020 Mars Rover will be able to answer the many lingering questions we have about ancient Martian life. According to Los Alamos National Laboratory, this rover will be specially equipped with a “SuperCam” that can “search for signs of past life” on Mars. (More about that instrument’s capabilities here.) Fingers crossed we find something—humanity really needs a win right now.

[Geophysical Research Letters]

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