Martian rocks yield important clues about life on the Red Planet

Dr Darren Mark (SUERC) & collaborators publish paper (Nature Communications, Tuesday 16th June) highlighting efforts to assess the possibility of life on Mars have taken a step forward thanks to the successful extraction and measurement of methane from Martian rocks.

The discovery was made as part of a joint research project carried out by SUERC and the University of Aberdeen in collaboration with the University of Glasgow, Brock University in Ontario, and the University of Western Ontario. The research was funded by a grant from the Science & Technology Facilities Council.

Scientists crushed samples of meteorites known to have come from Mars and found that six different meteorites – representing volcanic rock from the Red Planet - all contained methane.  The significance of the discovery lies in the possibility that the gas could be used as a food source by simple life beneath the Martian surface, in the same way as it is on earth.

One of the most exciting developments in the recent exploration of Mars has been the suggestion of methane in the Martian atmosphere. Recent and forthcoming missions by NASA and the European Space Agency respectively are looking at this, however it is so far unclear where the methane comes from, and even whether it is really there.

However, our research provides a strong indication that rocks on Mars contain a large reservoir of methane. This is significant because if simple life did exist below the surface, then it could use methane as a food source, in much the same way as microbes do in a range of environments on earth.

So while we cannot say that this discovery is proof of the existence of life on Mars, it gives strong encouragement to continue looking for methane sources that could support life.

The research has a significance way beyond Mars. Methane is a starting point for complex organic molecules. Our work implies that on many other rocky volcanic planets, in our galaxy and others, there may be methane, which could contribute to the building blocks of life.


See paper on Nature Communications.

First published: 16 June 2015

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