Life Started On Mars? 'We Are Actually All Martians,' Says Biochemist

By Josh Lieberman on August 29, 2013 1:18 PM EDT

mars trail
Life on Earth began after chemical elements from Mars arrived here on meteorites, suggests biochemist Steven Benner. Above, tracks left on the Martian surface by the Curiosity rover. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Life on Earth started on Mars and arrived here on meteorites, suggests biochemist Steven Benner. In Benner's research, presented to the Goldschmidt Conference in Florence, Italy, today, Benner argues that early Earth didn't have the chemical makeup necessary to create the earliest forms of life -- but Mars did.

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"The evidence seems to be building that we are actually all Martians; that life started on Mars and came to Earth on a rock," says Benner, of the Foundation for Applied Molecular Evolution in Florida. Benner also says "recent studies show that these conditions, suitable for the origin of life, may still exist on Mars."

Benner's theory hinges on an oxidized mineral form of the element molybdenum. Scientists theorize that the element was necessary for the earliest life forms to come into being. Benner argues that oxidized molybdenum didn't exist naturally on Earth at the time, but could have arrived here on metorites. 

"It's only when molybdenum becomes highly oxidized that it is able to influence how early life formed," says Benner. "This form of molybdenum couldn't have been available on Earth at the time life first began, because three billion years ago the surface of the Earth had very little oxygen, but Mars did. It's yet another piece of evidence which makes it more likely life came to Earth on a Martian meteorite, rather than starting on this planet."

In addition to molybdenum, says Benner, boron may have been a necessary catalyst for turning organic compounds into life forms. Without elements like molybdenum and boron, organic matter probably would have just turned into something like tar. It's unlikely that much boron would have existed on water-covered Earth, as water would have prevented boron from concentrating significantly enough. But boron has been found on Martian meteorites.

Naturally, some people are skeptical of the idea that life originated on Mars. David Grinspoon, an astrobiologist from the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, told NBC News that while Benner's theory is a "plausible story," but no more plausible than life here originated from prebiotic chemistry already present on Earth.

"This isn't really evidence that life came from Mars, but it is evidence that Steven Benner is very clever," Grinspoon said NBC News. "I think chemists always think they know more than they know, because nature has a lot of possible pathways it can try."

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