Building Blocks of Life Formed on Early Mars?

Brian Handwerk
for National Geographic News
December 13, 2007

The building blocks of life as we know it may have formed on Mars during a meeting of fire and ice, a new study reports.

The Martian meteorite called Allan Hills 84001, which was found on Earth in 1984, is known to include organic compounds—a class of molecules that contain carbon and hydrogen.

New analysis of the 4.5-billion-year-old rock suggests that these compounds were formed on Mars by volcanic activity early in the frigid planet's history.

But many experts continue to believe the long-held theory that the organics from Allan Hills 84001 were brought to Mars by meteorite impacts.

The find could have implications for the search for life on the red planet and many other frozen worlds scattered throughout the universe.

"Life as we know it requires water, and it requires these building blocks, organic molecules," said study co-author Hans E.F. Amundsen of Earth and Planetary Exploration Services in Oslo, Norway.

"We're finding evidence that some of the prerequisites that we think must be there are present" on Mars.

Icy Volcanoes

Water and simple carbon gases like methane and carbon dioxide are basic materials that can react under the right conditions to form organic compounds.

On frozen Mars those essential ingredients appear to have been cooked up by volcanoes, aided by an iron-rich mineral called magnetite.

"What's apparently happened is that you had a volcanic eruption, and things cooled very rapidly because you had a very cold climate," Amundsen said.

"Cooling carbon dioxide and water very rapidly together with iron oxide minerals [such as magnetite] has produced a reaction forming simple organic compounds."

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