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Proposed device aims to answer whether we are descended from Martians

By

March 23, 2011

Do we earthlings share some DNA with Marvin the Martian (Image: Ken's Oven via Flickr)

Do we earthlings share some DNA with Marvin the Martian (Image: Ken's Oven via Flickr)

Men are from Mars and women are from Venus. That's one theory ... another is that all life on Earth descended from organisms that originated on the Red Planet before hitching an interplanetary journey aboard meteorites to Earth. In an effort to provide a definitive answer, researchers at MIT and Harvard are developing an instrument to compare the genetic makeup of Martian microbes with that of terrestrial life. If they find correlations between the two it could prove that we are all descended from Martians, which would make us invaders from Mars.

The instrument concept was devised by MIT research scientist Christopher Carr and postdoctoral associate Clarissa Lui, working with Maria Zuber, head of MIT's Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences (EAPS), and Gary Ruvkun, a molecular biologist at the Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard University. Their strategy is to search for particular sequences of DNA or RNA in Martian microbes that are nearly universal in all forms of terrestrial life.

The researchers' device, which they have called the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Genomes (SETG), would take samples of Martian soil from below the surface and isolate any living microbes that might be present or any microbial remnants that can be preserved for around a million years and still contain viable DNA. Using the same techniques used for forensic DNA testing on Earth, the device would amplify the microbe's DNA or RNA and then use standard biochemical techniques to analyze their genetic sequences.

The concept relies on several facts that are now well established. Firstly, the climates of Earth and Mars used to be much more similar, so life that originated on one planet could have survived on the other. Secondly, an estimated one billion tons of rock have made the trip from Mars to Earth after being blasted loose by asteroid impacts. And thirdly, there is evidence to suggest that not only are microbes capable of surviving such an initial asteroid impact, but that they could also survive a trip through space that could take thousands of years. Additionally, orbital dynamics shows that it's around 100 times easier for potentially life-harboring rocks to travel from Mars to Earth than the other way around.

While the researchers believe their instrument could answer some fundamental questions about the origins of life on Earth, Christopher McKay, an astrobiologist at NASA-Ames Research Center in California who specializes in research related to the possibility of life on Mars, points out another reason for the research. If we are in fact descended from Martian microbes, then any organisms presently on Mars that are closely related to us could pose a higher risk of infection to any humans heading to the red planet than a totally alien microbe.

While potential evidence of past life on Mars has been found in asteroids on Earth and the level of methane on the planet points to life on the planet, there is still no concrete proof that there is or ever was life on the planet. The Viking probes of the mid-1970's carried several experiments designed to detect organic materials and organisms, but they produced ambiguous, albeit tantalizing, results. As part of NASA's Mars Exploration Program, the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) rover is scheduled to launch late this year to assess whether Mars ever was, or is still today, an environment able to support microbial life by investigating the chemistry relevant to life.

Unfortunately the SETG won't be ready for that mission, as the MIT and Harvard researchers estimate it will take two more years to finalize the design and testing of a prototype SETG device. And although such a device hasn't been selected for any upcoming Mars mission, they say their SETG instrument could be carried on a future mission with a lander or rover equipped with a drill.

"It's a long shot," Carr concedes, "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, it could have been transferred to Mars." Either way, "we could be related to life on Mars. So we should at least be looking for life on Mars that's related to us."

About the Author
Darren Quick Darren's love of technology started in primary school with a Nintendo Game & Watch Donkey Kong (still functioning) and a Commodore VIC 20 computer (not still functioning). In high school he upgraded to a 286 PC, and he's been following Moore's law ever since. This love of technology continued through a number of university courses and crappy jobs until 2008, when his interests found a home at Gizmag.   All articles by Darren Quick
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15 Comments

So, is this an admission that life is not spontaneous but it must come from a source? People are all too eager to believe the absurd (Men are from Mars and women are from Venus) but find it impossible to believe the truth about mans origin coming from a creator.

donwine
24th March, 2011 @ 06:28 am PDT

Firstly, I thought this is type thing we were going to Mars for in 20 or so years anyway. I don't think a couple of decades without knowing if there are Martian microbes, or if they're kin to us is going to be a real issue.

Secondly, hitching rides aboard asteroids isn't the only way microbes can get around. Solar winds can knock off microbes out of our uppermost atmosphere and some of those, and/or their spores, are able to survive the journey. This was posited by Dr. Hugh Ross (reasons.org) around 1985 or so in a book of his.

If life exists there, unless it has something completely different to the DNA/RNA molecules, it's not going to prove one thing or the other. If it is there, well, whoopee, we found out a few years earlier than we would have anyway.

MIT has enough money without writing redundant grants. Do something a little more useful.

Facebook User
24th March, 2011 @ 07:13 am PDT

I don't see how you came to your conclusion. The article never said anything about life being or not being spontaneous. Even if life on earth did come from Mars that doesn't mean that life on Mars wasn't spontaneous.

JM
24th March, 2011 @ 07:36 am PDT

Although a genetic similarity (if found) could be evidence of the development of life on Mars and it's transference to Earth (or vise versa), it could also be evidence of both Mars and Earth being stocked from microbes which have developed on and transferred from a third party location (possibly from beyond our solar system).

Facebook User
24th March, 2011 @ 07:44 am PDT

Donwine - nobody was there to witness the creation or seeding of life when it happened, but attributing it to a magical monotheistic deity is rather like believing that an illusionist is actually a magic wizard, instead of trying to figure out how he performed his trick.

This article presupposes that, in the event of a discovery of martian microbes (which hasn't happened) they could be compared to those on earth and justify that Mars was a probable source of life on earth. If that became the case, the next question would be what was the origin of life on mars? Still doesn't answer the question...

Microbes have been discovered in a marsian-like environment on earth in the Atacama desert, but this doesn't lead anywhere. The point is, people are theorizing and guessing which may one day lead to an answer or probable explanation instead of just giving up and accepting the easy answer; 'oh it must have been god then.'

PeetEngineer
24th March, 2011 @ 07:59 am PDT

Not at all. All they're trying to figure out is if life on Earth originated on Mars. They're not trying to figure out how life on Mars originated.

As for how life itself originated originally (Be it on Mars or Earth), we'll figure it out eventually. Either God will tell us during the judgement day, or we'll get life going spontaneously on a petri dish at some point... Or both.

Facebook User
24th March, 2011 @ 09:07 am PDT

So if we discover that life on Earth came from Mars, then how do we discover how life got to Mars?

@donwine-interesting take on this article. I'm not understanding the connection.

Paul Anthony
24th March, 2011 @ 09:50 am PDT

Even if it IS "100 times more likely" that material from Mars would be transfered to Earth than vice-versa, it STILL wouln't prove that life on Earth came from Mars, nor would it be anby proof that God didn't create life altogether, since Genesis 1:1 says,

"In the beginning, God created the heavens AND the Earth." It goes on to say, in later verses, that God put MAN on earth, but it does not mention what happened on the other parts of "the heavens" because WE live here on Earth, and the Bible was for US.

James Howard Tennyson
24th March, 2011 @ 09:56 am PDT

While walking around in Times Square many years ago it occurred to me that all the Cro-Magnon and Neanderthals that had ever lived on this planet were now reincarnated and walking the streets of NYC.

Now I see I may have been right. The fact that one of the commentators is (still) using the Bible as a reference to validate the mythological stories of our human origins indicates to me that he may be one of those throw-backs I saw that day.

Janet Bratter
24th March, 2011 @ 03:15 pm PDT

Mr. Tennyson, the popularly accepted way to attempt to uncover answers to questions like the genesis of life is via the scientific method, not via examining legends from the Bronze Age... especially books that feature talking animals. Citing such a book doesn't provide evidence of anything.

alcalde
24th March, 2011 @ 03:58 pm PDT

PeetEngineer, thank you, could not have said it better, probably ruder though flatlanders make me so sad about some humans, sigh, silly people who think the buybull is fact

Bill Bennett
24th March, 2011 @ 06:27 pm PDT

Is Donwine serious in his comment about men are from mars and women are from venus? Well, I guess it's as likely as divine creation...

Asoka Indrasoma
24th March, 2011 @ 09:56 pm PDT

Does anybody know how it is easier to get things from Mars to Earth rather than the other way around? Ever throw something off a merry-go-round? The Earth is inside the orbit of Mars . . .

Facebook User
25th March, 2011 @ 04:21 am PDT

This a quote from the first line in the article: "Men are from Mars and women are from Venus." I can't make this stuff up!

donwine
25th March, 2011 @ 05:47 pm PDT

> Does anybody know how it is easier to get things from Mars to Earth rather than the other way around?

Mars' gravity is much less than Earth, that means that when an asteroid strikes Earth or Mars, and rocks fly up from the impact, it's much more likely that one of the flying rocks will gain escape velocity on Mars, than on Earth.

Taryn East
27th March, 2011 @ 03:48 am PDT
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