Martian Clay Contains Chemical Believed Crucial For Life’s Origin

Electron microscope image showing the 700-million-year-old Martian clay veins containing boron (100 µm = one tenth of a millimeter) in a sample of the Martian meteorite MIL 090030 discovered in Antarctica. Credit: UHNAI

University of Hawaii astrobiologists have discovered high concentrations of boron within ancient clays in a Martian meteorite. Boron may sound boring but when it comes to life’s list of favorite ingredients, it’s crucial. When it hooks up with oxygen atoms to become ‘borate’, boron may have played an important role in the formation of RNA, one of the building blocks of life.

A thin section of the Martian meteorite MIL 090030 analyzed by the UHNAI researchers. Credit: UHNAI

Its more famous brother, DNA, is key in transmitting genetic information; RNA or ribonucleic acid is essential for the synthesis of proteins, which literally build our bodies from the ground up. If DNA is the master plan, RNA is the construction crew. At life’s beginning, RNA may even have served as a precursor to DNA.

RNA is similar to DNA but takes the shape of single, shorter strands. There are other chemical differences too. Credit: Wikipedia

“On Earth, borate-rich salt, sediment and clay deposits are relatively common, but such deposits had never previously been found on an extraterrestrial body,” according to the study.

The new research suggests that when life was getting started on Earth, borate could also have been concentrated in deposits on Mars. Borate is essential in stabilizing ribose, the R in RNA.

To read more on the subject, check out this synopsis of the original article.

Remember the Mars Opportunity Rover? Scientists have kept it busy for more than 9 years and 22 miles tracking from one fascinating landscape to another.

Esperance Rock on Mars is located along the rim of Endeavour Crater. Credit: NASA/ JPL-CalTech

The rover recently examined a patch of Martian soil named “Esperance” along the rim of Endeavour Crater. Analysis shows it appears to be clay once heavily altered by water. The newer rover, Curiosity, has also found clay minerals in Gale Crater and is now on the move to layered clay deposits in the crater’s central mound Mt. Sharp.

‘Einstein’ arcs across the sky above the W of Cassiopeia Saturday night June 8. Credit: Bob King

On a different topic, the International Space Station (ISS) still cruises by every evening and will continue making passes through early next week. If you haven’t seen it or ATV-4 (aka ‘Einstein’) yet, now’s the time.

I caught Einstein several nights ago during one of its passes across the northern sky. It moved fast – quicker than the ISS – and appeared as bright as a Big Dipper star. Docking with the station is expected on June 15, so you still have a few days. Go to Heavens Above, log in and click the ATV-4 and ISS links to find times when they fly over your house.