Life on Mars: Organic molecules discovered by NASA ‘consistent with alien life on Mars’

On Earth, organic compounds called thiophenes are found in coal, crude oil and even rare white truffles. These thiophenes were also recently discovered on Mars by the US-based space agency’s unmanned probe.

This news has led Washington State University astrobiologist Professor Dirk Schulze-Makuch to suggest their presence could be consistent with the presence of early alien life on Mars.

We identified several biological pathways for thiophenes that seem more likely than chemical ones

Professor Dirk Schulze-Makuch

Professor Schulze-Makuch and his Technische Universität colleague Dr Jacob Heinz have explored some of the possible explanations for the existence of thiophenes on Mars.

Their research suggests a biological process, likely involving bacteria, may have played a role in the organic compound’s existence in the Martian soil.

Professor Schulze-Makuch said: ”We identified several biological pathways for thiophenes that seem more likely than chemical ones, but we still need proof.


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“If you find thiophenes on Earth, then you would think they are biological.

“But on Mars, of course, the bar to prove that has to be quite a bit higher.”

Thiophene molecules have four carbon atoms and a sulphur atom arranged in a ring.

Both carbon and sulphur molecules are bio-essential elements.

However the two astrobiologists could not comprehensively exclude non-biological processes leading to the existence of these compounds on Mars.

Asteroid and meteors collisions with the Red Planet provide one possible abiotic explanation.

Thiophenes can also be created through thermochemical sulphate reduction.

This is a process involving a set of compounds being heated to at least 120 C (248 F).

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The biological scenario suggests bacteria, which may have existed more than three billion years ago when Mars was warmer and wetter, could have facilitated a sulphate reduction process resulting in thiophenes.

Another candidate involves the thiophenes themselves being broken down by bacteria.

While Curiosity has provided many clues, the NASA rover uses techniques that break larger molecules up into components, meaning scientists can only examine the resulting fragments.

Further evidence should come from the next rover, the Rosalind Franklin, which has an expected launch date for this July.

Rosalind Franklin will be carrying a Mars Organic Molecule Analyzer, which uses a less destructive analysing technique, allowing for the collection of larger molecules.

Professor Schulze-Makuch and Dr Heinz recommend using the data collected by the next rover to look at carbon and sulphur isotopes.

Isotopes are variations of the chemical elements with different numbers of neutrons than the typical form, resulting in differences in mass.

Professor Schulze-Makuch said: ”Organisms are lazy.

“They would rather use the light isotope variations of the element because it costs them less energy.”

Organisms alter the ratios of heavy and light isotopes in the compounds they produce that are substantially different from the ratios found in their building blocks, which the researchers describe as “a telltale signal for life.”

Even if the next rover returns this isotopic evidence, it will be in sufficient to definitively prove there is, or ever was basic alien life on Mars.

Professor Schulze-Makuch said: ”As Carl Sagan said ‘extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence’.

“I think the proof will really require that we actually send people there, and an astronaut looks through a microscope and sees a moving microbe.”

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