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Scientists Look at Martian Salt for Ancient Life

ScuttleMonkey posted more than 6 years ago | from the would-you-like-fries-with-that dept.

Space 116

eldavojohn writes "Is there life on Mars? Maybe not, but a better question might be whether or not it has ever existed on Mars? Scientists are claiming that the best indication for this will be in newly found evaporated salt deposits on Mars which they can use to check for cellulose. Here on earth, tiny fuzzy fibers have been found in salt dating back almost 250 million years making it the oldest known evidence of life on earth. Jack Griffith, a microbiologist from UNC, is quoted as saying, 'Cellulose was one of the earliest polymers organisms made during their evolution, so it pops out as the most likely thing you'd find on Mars, if you found anything at all. Looking for it in salt deposits is probably a very good way to go.'"

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116 comments

Do you KNOW what the QUEERS are doing to the SOIL? (0, Funny)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#22924126)

They're building landing pads for gay Martians!

Re:Do you KNOW what the QUEERS are doing to the SO (0, Offtopic)

Tablizer (95088) | more than 6 years ago | (#22924500)

They're building landing pads for gay Martians!

Gay Martians are born with their own landing pads. Sheeesh, don't you know anything about space?
           

Re:Do you KNOW what the QUEERS are doing to the SO (-1, Offtopic)

rk (6314) | more than 6 years ago | (#22924714)

Flamebait? Or mods who just hate the Dead Milkmen?

Re:Do you KNOW what the QUEERS are doing to the SO (-1, Offtopic)

spun (1352) | more than 6 years ago | (#22924760)

You know, rk, I like you. You're not like the other people, here, in the slashdotpark.

Re:Do you KNOW what the QUEERS are doing to the SO (1)

rk (6314) | more than 6 years ago | (#22926108)

Wow, I guess we have our answer. The Mods REALLY hate the Dead Milkmen.

The lesson is learned. One must contain their pop-culture references to the approved Linux, Star Trek, Star Wars, Simpsons, South Park and Zero Wing canon. All else is anathema and must be labeled "Flamebait" so as to not taint the /. culture. If one questions this, one will get further modded Offtopic. By all means, don't fail to disappoint. Do your part and mod this down right away!

Salt and astrobiology (4, Informative)

Geoffrey.landis (926948) | more than 6 years ago | (#22924146)

Salt on Mars has been a topic of interest for a while-- I wrote about the implications of Martian salt for Astrobiology a couple of years back, in an article in Astrobiology [liebertonline.com]

A science fiction them as well (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#22924294)

And science fiction fans will know about Martian salt from Kim Stanley Robinson's vision of a terraforming effort in the trilogy beginning with Red Mars [amazon.com] . The survival of bacteria is difficult to acheive on Mars due to the salty soil. Some years after first reading the trilogy, I still remember the nerdy joke some biologist in the trilogy says, that a certain bacterium is so halophilic that "it thinks brine has too much water in it."

Re:Salt and astrobiology (0, Offtopic)

QuantumFTL (197300) | more than 6 years ago | (#22924376)

Hey Geoffrey, long time no see! Do you still hang around the Boston area? That's where I moved after I got done with the JPL and grad school stuff.

Do they still have you doing MER work? Will you be on MSL in any capacity?

Re:Salt and astrobiology (1)

Chris Burke (6130) | more than 6 years ago | (#22924516)

I wrote about the implications of Martian salt for Astrobiology a couple of years back, in an article in Astrobiology

Wait, wait, was your article about the implications of Martian salt for the science of astrobiology? Or the implications of Martian salt for the publication Astrobiology?

Inquiring minds want to know!

Re:Salt and astrobiology (1)

Geoffrey.landis (926948) | more than 6 years ago | (#22924946)

Yes.

Cellulose *variants*? (1)

mfarah (231411) | more than 6 years ago | (#22924150)

I am no botanist, so I have to ask a potentially dumb question: are there any kind of cellulose-like variants that should be prospected as well?

Re:Cellulose *variants*? (2, Informative)

Jodaxia (312456) | more than 6 years ago | (#22924334)

Well basically any carbohydrate would be good evidence of life, however cellulose just happens to be very stable. (Think cotton shirts, cows chewing cud, and metamucil.)

fuzzy (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#22924152)

"Here on earth, tiny fuzzy fibers have been found in salt dating back almost 250 million years..."

All this time I thought it was because of careless naked workers at the Morton plant.

You're looking for the wrong thing (0, Offtopic)

Apoorv Khatreja (1263418) | more than 6 years ago | (#22924164)

Considering the harsh environmental conditions on Mars, only cockroaches could survive over there.

So you have to look for those black faecal pellets to find life on Mars.

Re:You're looking for the wrong thing (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#22926662)

So you have to look for those black faecal pellets to find life on Mars.
Would that be the Mars pepper?

Knock! Knock! Who was there? (1)

jusDfaqs (997794) | more than 6 years ago | (#22924176)

The salt people!

The salt people who?


The salt people who left this solar system eons ago!

:-)

Look for the Margarita glasses (2, Funny)

UberHoser (868520) | more than 6 years ago | (#22924218)

D.E.L.I.C.I.O.U.S. !

slightly inaccurate summary (5, Interesting)

cowscows (103644) | more than 6 years ago | (#22924220)

The article summary says that the cellulose found in 250 million year old salt is the oldest known evidence for life on Earth. That's not true, there's ample of evidence of life for billions of years before that. The article states that the 250 million year old salt is the oldest biological substance known, which is pretty cool, but there are plenty of other types of evidence for life besides just finding dead tissue.

Re:slightly inaccurate summary (-1, Troll)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#22924314)

Where, pray tell, do you get your numbers? I want to see what "evidence" can be put forth for "billions" and "millions" (or even "hundreds of thousands") of years, for anything.

Call me a Creationist nut, but don't go stating things as facts unless you have some reason to believe that's what they are.

(And, yes, I do want to see your evidence :) )

Re:slightly inaccurate summary (1)

Telvin_3d (855514) | more than 6 years ago | (#22924362)

Feel free to swing by any college library you like. They have an entire section.

Re:slightly inaccurate summary (2, Funny)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#22924458)

He can't do that. He's too busy at church.

Re:slightly inaccurate summary (2, Insightful)

Gat0r30y (957941) | more than 6 years ago | (#22924438)

Radioactive decay is a pretty well understood phenomenon. The strong force (and weak too) in the nucleus of radioactive elements isn't quite strong enough to contain all the protons and neutrons in there, causing alpha and beta particles to come flying out from time to time (causing decay to another element in the case of a proton, and another isotope in the case of a neutron). By measuring the ratio of isotopes, we can figure out when a rock was formed. And, it all fits quite neatly in our standard model.
So you are left with a choice, believe that the standard model is pretty much right, and thus the Earth must be ~ 4.5 billion years old, or deny the standard model. However, if you choose to deny the standard model, I would most sincerely enjoy your recaboobeling of quantum mechanics to explain this discrepancy.

Re:slightly inaccurate summary (1)

wgaryhas (872268) | more than 6 years ago | (#22924556)

I've never quite understood how that allowed them to find the age of things. How do you know that is when the rock formed? You know the age of the atoms the rock is made of, not the age of the rock.

Re:slightly inaccurate summary (2, Insightful)

Chris Burke (6130) | more than 6 years ago | (#22924700)

Well, the way it works for organic tissue and radio-carbon dating is that new higher isotopes of carbon are being created all the time, and have a generally equal distribution in the environment at large. When an organism is alive, it will continuously take in new carbon from the environment (food, CO2 for plants, etc) and thus maintain the same ratio of carbon isotopes. When it dies, however, it stops taking in new carbon, and thus slowly the existing radioactive isotopes will decay and not be replaced so the ratio decreases and you can calculate the age.

I only use the example of radio-carbon because I'm familiar with it. I'd assume it's somewhat similar with dating geologic formations, in that while say sediments are being deposited on a river it's being exposed to a constant influx of new material, but once the sediment is well buried it becomes 'fixed'. But like I said, that's an assumption.

Re:slightly inaccurate summary (1)

eonlabs (921625) | more than 6 years ago | (#22927280)

I know there are both upper bounds and lower bounds on the accuracy of radiocarbon dating. I would assume these are related to variations in atmospheric conditions and carbon intake by organisms and the length of a half-life of carbon. Does anyone know what the limitations are and/or why?

Re:slightly inaccurate summary (2, Interesting)

MightyMartian (840721) | more than 6 years ago | (#22924756)

Start here. It also includes all the necessary references for going to the primary literature if you think all those evil atheist scum in talkorigins.org are just making it up:

http://talkorigins.org/faqs/faq-age-of-earth.html [talkorigins.org]

In fact, I suggest you probably spend some time at that site.

Re:slightly inaccurate summary (1)

david.given (6740) | more than 6 years ago | (#22926300)

I've never quite understood how that allowed them to find the age of things. How do you know that is when the rock formed? You know the age of the atoms the rock is made of, not the age of the rock.

Ah, but rock's not made out of atoms --- it's made out of molecules. The molecules only work properly if they're made up of the right combination of atoms. Let's say that the environment the rock's formed in contains Foonium. Foonium is unstable and decays into Barnium, which is stable. They're chemically different; Foonium forms Foonium Oxide, but Barnium's an inert metal. So, when the rock's formed in lots of hot air, it ends up containing lots of Foonium Oxide --- but no Barnium, because the Barnium's so inert it doesn't take part in the rock-making process.

Millions of years later, some of that Foonium has decayed into Barnium. Since we know that the rock was formed with 100% Foonium and 0% Barnium, we can use the ratio to figure out how long it's been since it was formed.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stromatolite (3, Informative)

sofar (317980) | more than 6 years ago | (#22924564)

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stromatolite [wikipedia.org]

Quote:

"The earliest stromatolite of confirmed microbial origin dates to 2,724 million years ago."

Re:http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stromatolite (1)

dnrck (973325) | more than 6 years ago | (#22927926)

Perhaps wikipedia requires updating, there is ample evidence that Stromatolite's were present up to 3,235Million Years Ago. Ca. Birger Rasmussen, 2000 re: Filamentousmicrofossils in Western Australia's Pilbara. (and others)

Return Sample? (4, Informative)

Gat0r30y (957941) | more than 6 years ago | (#22924224)

Wouldn't this require a sample coming back here? It looks like they needed a Scanning Electron Microscope to see the cellulose fibers. It seems to me they would have to return a sample of the salts in order to see anything. Are there any plans for a sample return mission to mars anytime soon?

Re:Return Sample? (2, Funny)

Tablizer (95088) | more than 6 years ago | (#22924386)

they needed a Scanning Electron Microscope....Are there any plans for a sample return mission to mars anytime soon?

I hope not. The possibility that it may contaminate Earth with a Mars infection we have no immunity for is too high. Even a 1-in-a-million chance is not worth it. Would you want to take a 1-to-million gamble with all of humanity? (Please, no G.W.Bush jokes). We'd probably need to set up an orbiting or moon base lab for that so that any infected workers are incubated away from Earth for at least a few years.
   

Re:Return Sample? (1)

SatanicPuppy (611928) | more than 6 years ago | (#22924498)

You've been watching too much sci-fi...It's unlikely that something from such a wildly different evolutionary line would even be infectious to us. It's still pretty rare that diseases jump species here and everything on Earth is pretty closely related, genetically speaking.

The odds of finding a living, viable, martian disease that likes people are about the same as finding a herd of giraffes roaming around up there.

Re:Return Sample? (5, Insightful)

Tablizer (95088) | more than 6 years ago | (#22924560)

You've been watching too much sci-fi...It's unlikely that something from such a wildly different evolutionary line would even be infectious to us.

1. We don't know that with any certainty. It may end up being a "contest" to see which side can evolve an advantage over the other first before immunities are built up by both sides.

2. Mars life may be related. Studies suggest asteroids can blast spores betweens planets.

It's still pretty rare that diseases jump species here

But species jumpers also tend to be some of the deadliest. Livestock are notorious for producing whoppers.
   

Re:Return Sample? (3, Interesting)

SatanicPuppy (611928) | more than 6 years ago | (#22924826)

I don't honestly think there will be any evolutionary pressure, simply because there is no vehicle for it. In the case of livestock viruses, those viruses are passed around the animal populations for huge amounts of time before one manages to jump the divide. We live in close proximity to the livestock, so there is a good chance, given enough time, that a virus will mutate in just the right way, and that that mutation will happen in the right time and place to find a suitable host.

None of that applies to a theoretical martian virus that's got no growth vector and no suitable host animal that it's evolved to live in, that we like to hang out with. It would have to have us nailed the first time, no tests, no practice. That's pretty damn unlikely.

The asteroid thing is of course possible, but again pretty unlikely. In that scenario, it'd be more likely that we've already been infected with martian bacteria and have built up immunity than it is that our whole ecosystem is parallel to theirs, and their theoretical hostile bacteria are out there now, waiting.

Re:Return Sample? (1)

Tablizer (95088) | more than 6 years ago | (#22925468)

None of that applies to a theoretical martian virus that's got no growth vector and no suitable host animal that it's evolved to live in, that we like to hang out with.

It may start out in say the antarctic, but spread (evolve) to other environments over time fairly quickly because it has no natural enemies yet. It's similar to invasive species that beat out the native ones and become pests (like rabbits in Australia or the loud tree frogs in Hawaii). Its not that the invasive species is necessarily "better" than the native ones, its that it just takes too long for predators etc. to catch up.

Yes, it is a long-shot, I agree, but the penalty for being wrong is potentially very high also.

    risk = harm * likelihood

Likelihood is very small, but harm is potentially very large.
   

Re:Return Sample? (1)

MightyMartian (840721) | more than 6 years ago | (#22925630)

The situations are not analogous. In the case of foreign invasive species, you are, in fact, dealing, relatively speaking, with closely related organisms. Rabbits can, by and large, eat the Australian plants, because only a few hundred million years of evolution separate the plants from an ancestor of the rabbit that could process the food.

If there was a common ancestor between life on Earth and some hypothetical Martian life, that common ancestor would likely date back over three billion years ago, which is orders of a magnitude longer period. Many of the features you would identify with rabbits and plants didn't exist back then. It may even be possible (and by no means do I accept that living organisms could survive being scooped up in a meteor collision and then millennia or millions of years in space) that many of the features of modern life may not have even evolved at this early period.

Re:Return Sample? (1)

Tablizer (95088) | more than 6 years ago | (#22928192)

Rabbits can, by and large, eat the Australian plants, because only a few hundred million years of evolution separate the plants from an ancestor of the rabbit that could process the food.

Most living things on earth eat organic proteins and to a lessor extent sugars. It is somewhat likely that predatorial Mars life does the same. At least we cannot bet our safety on certainty it is different. "Probably" does not cut it.

If there was a common ancestor between life on Earth and some hypothetical Martian life, that common ancestor would likely date back over three billion years ago

Not necessarily. The "asteroid bridge" still exists.
             

Re:Return Sample? (1)

MightyMartian (840721) | more than 6 years ago | (#22925034)

If there is life on Mars, and if it is related in any way to life here (those are two really big ifs), there is still billions of years of divergent evolution here. Other than the possibility that such life might belch out chemical compounds that might be poisonous to Earth life, I think the likelihood of something that could actually infect any modern organism is exceedingly unlikely. I'd wager that if there is life on Mars, it would likely find our oxygen-nitrogen atmosphere quite poisonous, and would probably die if brought here unprotected.

Re:Return Sample? (1)

Tablizer (95088) | more than 6 years ago | (#22925514)

I'd wager that ...

You can say that with a million-to-one certainty? I don't think so. That is being overoptimistic about human science. Even our top theories are not that strong.

We couldn't even prevent the housing bubble even though it was partially forcasted by many. You are going to trust human life to the same buerocrats? Please no!
     

Re:Return Sample? (1)

MightyMartian (840721) | more than 6 years ago | (#22925588)

You can never say anything with absolute certainty. I can't say with any certainty that the minute you turn away from your computer that a meteorite won't strike you right between the eyes. I can say it doesn't seem very likely. Biochemistry is a finicky thing and while one can't say that there might not be some risk, billions of years of specialized evolution means that both ecosystems would likely be quite incompatible.

Re:Return Sample? (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#22927224)

We couldn't even prevent the housing bubble even though it was partially forcasted by many. You are going to trust human life to the same buerocrats?

First off, it's "bureaucrats". Power (kratos) to those who havehold offices/bureaus.

Sorry, it's a pet peeve of mine.

In response to your real question -- you know how the word "theory" means different things to politicians and scientists? How, to a politician, "theory" means "wild-assed guess", as in "Evolution / global warming? That's just a theory!" -- but that "theory" simultaneously means "the best explanation available in the entire recorded history of humanity" to a scientist, as in "So is gravitation, special relativity, and general relativity."

Well, the phrase "I'd wager" works the same way.

When a bureaucrat says "he'd wager it's safe", he means he hasn't a friggin' clue, but he thinks you want it to be true, and he can get more funding if he'd wager it was true. If he gets it wrong, no biggie, he just asks for new legislation to make it safer! "I'd wager the violence is from that danged rock music with them explicit lyrics. If putting labels on records don't solve the problem o' violence, why, I'd wager it's the fault of them danged vidya games, and we need a rating system for them too!"

When a scientist says "he'd wager", he means something more akin to "theory". I don't know that the Moon will continue in orbit around the Earth. Even though I know that Newton's theory of gravitation was an incomplete description of the phenomenon, and that I know there are problems with reconciling general relativity with quantum theory, and that we don't actually understand gravity, I'd wager the Moon will continue to stay in its orbit about the Earth.

By that same logic, I don't know that Martian lifeforms would find us inedible, but I'd wager we taste pretty nasty to them. And vice versa.

Re:Return Sample? (1)

Tablizer (95088) | more than 6 years ago | (#22928210)

First off, it's "bureaucrats".

Spell checkers have a hard time finding that one for some reason. I don't understand why they don't add Soundex to their algorithms.

In response to your real question -- you know how the word "theory" means different things to politicians and scientists?

It does not matter. Politicians make the final decision, not scientists.

Re:Return Sample? (2, Interesting)

Geoffrey.landis (926948) | more than 6 years ago | (#22924994)

You've been watching too much sci-fi...It's unlikely that something from such a wildly different evolutionary line would even be infectious to us. It's still pretty rare that diseases jump species here and everything on Earth is pretty closely related, genetically speaking.

Don't bother with that-- if Martian organisms are halophilic, they could not survive in a salt concentration as low as that in our bloodstream, or our oceans; they would literally fall apart.

...and if they're not halophilic, they wouldn't survive on Mars.

Re:Return Sample? (1)

QuantumFTL (197300) | more than 6 years ago | (#22924512)

I hope not. The possibility that it may contaminate Earth with a Mars infection we have no immunity for is too high. Even a 1-in-a-million chance is not worth it. Would you want to take a 1-to-million gamble with all of humanity?
I agree with your sentiment about gambling with the lives of all of humankind, but is there any evidence to suggest that 1:1000000 are reasonable odds given:
  • Unlikelihood that there is present life on mars
  • Unlikelihood that it will survive the sample return mission
  • Unlikelihood that it will escape the lab
  • Unlikelihood that said life could survive in a much different atmosphere, temperature range, and populated biosphere
  • Unlikelihood that said life could in any way interface with and affect (especially infect) any terrestrial life forms
  • Unlikelihood that that terrestrial life form would happen to be human
  • Unlikelihood that it would actually kill every single human
I'm sorry, but I don't think we're talking million to one. I think we're a little closer to the number of grains of sand on the earth here, when all is multiplied together.

Re:Return Sample? (1)

Tablizer (95088) | more than 6 years ago | (#22924602)

If even the first or second "unlikely" item on your list turns out wrong, it will cast doubt on our ability to estimate such things (assuming we trust them in the first place).
       

Spectroscopy (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#22926314)

It should be possible to use spectroscopy to identify cellulose chains on Mars. Chemical reactivity with an appropriate enzyme might also work.

And it's not necessarily impossible to equip a rover with an electron microscope, although it might be ungainly.

Re:Return Sample? (1)

primenerd (100899) | more than 6 years ago | (#22927188)

Not necessarily, there are several old-school biochemical techniques which can assay for cellulose (involving all kinds of fun acids!). Preparing a sample for EM is quite involved. Also, a heavy metal is necessary as a contrasting agent making sample preparation a decidedly destructive process.

Personally, if I was going to design an assay for material of biological origin I would use the properties of chirality. All complex biological molecules have a handedness. Organic molecules of abiotic origin are a "racemic mixture" where chirality is random. If plane-polarized light is shined through such a sample, no optical rotation is observed. In contrast, a sample of biological origin which consists of a single chiral species (say, a sample of a left-handed amino acid) will rotate the light. These assays have the advantage of being able to detect many of the most important biomolecules (sugars, nucleotides, amino acids). Such an assay would require a light source, a chromatography system, a detector and two plane-polarizing filters. Considerably more portable than an electron microscope.

Of course the surface of Mars is a severely oxidizing environment, so it is debatable how well such labile bonds as those found in cellulose would survive over millions (billions) of years. A salt pan is probably the best place as any to look, as water tends to destroy such bonds.

250 million? (3, Insightful)

Tablizer (95088) | more than 6 years ago | (#22924230)

Here on earth, tiny fuzzy fibers have been found in salt dating back almost 250 million years making it the oldest known evidence of life on earth.

Earth cellular life evidence dates back to about 4 billion years if I remember correctly. Even some trilobite fossils date to around 530 million years ago. Perhaps they meant "250 million years since the formation of Earth"? Its a trick to make me RTFA to find out what they really meant.

       

No, not oldest evidence of life (4, Informative)

mck9 (713554) | more than 6 years ago | (#22924232)

No, these aren't the oldest known signs of life on earth. There are fossils way older than 250 million years. According to the article, this fuzz is the oldest known **biological material** on earth. Not the same thing.

250 million years (1)

zakeria (1031430) | more than 6 years ago | (#22924234)

wtf? we can look at huge bones older than this?

Re:250 million years (2, Informative)

PresidentEnder (849024) | more than 6 years ago | (#22925620)

As others have said, the old cellulose isn't the oldest evidence of life on earth. It's the oldest biological material on earth. Fossils are just rocks, prettily shaped.

Re:250 million years (1)

zakeria (1031430) | more than 6 years ago | (#22926916)

your over stating ... so fossils are not evidence of life? ... ummm

oldest known evidence of life on earth? (1)

PeelBoy (34769) | more than 6 years ago | (#22924252)

I thought Stromatolites were the oldest known evidence of life on earth?

Re:oldest known evidence of life on earth? (1)

CheshireCatCO (185193) | more than 6 years ago | (#22924312)

Actually, I believe that the oldest evidence for life is in the isotope ratios in rocks. It's indirect, but it also relies less on chance than fossilization. (Basically, biological processes tend to use more of one isotope than another, leaving the atmosphere enriched relative to the background. So this is a tracer for the presence of biological activity.)

Re:oldest known evidence of life on earth? (1)

mapsjanhere (1130359) | more than 6 years ago | (#22924590)

Do you have a quote on that preferential absorption of isotopes? The reason isotope ratios can be used to date materials (like Carbon 14 for recent events) is not that biological processes incorporate C14 preferably, but that they incorporate it at all. So once the biological activity stops, so does the C-14 absorption.

Re:oldest known evidence of life on earth? (1)

MightyMartian (840721) | more than 6 years ago | (#22924820)

I think the parent may be misremembering the Oxygen Catastrophe [wikipedia.org] . That began well over a billion years after the first life appeared on Earth. I believe we know about this due to deposits of iron oxide, which could only form in the presence of oxygen, and point to a period when all those wonderful early organisms had farted enough molecular oxygen into the atmosphere to start the process (and probably poison a lot of organisms in the process).

I imagine it is possible that in certain reactions, certain isotopes are going to be favored more than others, though I don't know off hand of anything that associates that with the evolution of life.

Re:oldest known evidence of life on earth? (1)

CheshireCatCO (185193) | more than 6 years ago | (#22925116)

A quote, no. But I believe that Steve Mojzsis has published work on this, if that helps. He explained it to us in graduate astrobiology, but a) I'm an astrophysicist and b) it was almost a decade ago, so I won't swear to be able to quote stuff back to you.

The gist of it, as I recall, is that heavier isotopes react more sluggishly than lighter ones.

Re:oldest known evidence of life on earth? (1)

mapsjanhere (1130359) | more than 6 years ago | (#22926166)

thanks, we were obviously looking at vastly different time scales. I found a reference at http://ntrs.nasa.gov/archive/nasa/casi.ntrs.nasa.gov/19980037618_1998078057.pdf [nasa.gov] . Now I have to track down the references therein for the isotope enrichment mechanism.

Re:oldest known evidence of life on earth? (1)

CheshireCatCO (185193) | more than 6 years ago | (#22926298)

Any time. I'll have to try to remember to check my notes from Astrobio when I get home from the office today. I may have recorded the mechanism in more detail. On the other hand, probably not: I take lousy notes.

Bad Summary (4, Informative)

algae (2196) | more than 6 years ago | (#22924258)

Here on earth, tiny fuzzy fibers have been found in salt dating back almost 250 million years making it the oldest known evidence of life on earth.

What the article actually *says*, is that the fibers themselves are 250 million years old, making them the oldest known biologically-produced material. There's obviously older evidence of life to be found on Earth.

While I'm nitpicking, "Earth" is capitalized, as it is a proper name.

Re:Bad Summary (1)

Punko (784684) | more than 6 years ago | (#22924482)

Earth is our planet, while earth is a substance. One is a proper name, the other is a generic term for soil. Having said that, parent is correct that when we say "found on Earth" is should be capitalized. If the phrase was "found in the earth" either version could be correct, depending upon context.

Re:Bad Summary (2, Insightful)

MightyMartian (840721) | more than 6 years ago | (#22924850)

What the article actually *says*, is that the fibers themselves are 250 million years old, making them the oldest known biologically-produced material. There's obviously older evidence of life to be found on Earth.


I don't think that's quite accurate either. Certainly banded iron formations predate all of this by a couple of billion years. I guess cellulose may be the oldest surviving organic materials, but the evidence of life leaving behind different materials is much older than that.

If there is life on mars... (1)

mlwmohawk (801821) | more than 6 years ago | (#22924262)

I wonder what the middle eastern religions, the trifecta judaism, christianity, and islam, will have to say about it. Either the universe is teaming with life, or we are the only ones. I find it hard to believe we are the only ones, so sooner or later will find proof of life somewhere.

Re:If there is life on mars... (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#22924332)

If I have to believe my boss (I'm from Europe but live and work in the Bible-belt of America) then the earth is only 6000 years old. He even used Carbon-14 as a proof (love how part of science can be used but other isotopes are totally ignored.) And he really believes it. I'm a bit scared if he is right tho. See you all in hell I guess :(

Re:If there is life on mars... (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#22924412)

If there is no designer/creator, I think it's likely that we are alone in the universe, as the odds against this (us, etc.) happening would seem to be quite slim, like the proverbial infinite number of monkeys typing for an infinite amount of time and eventually producing all the works of William Shakespeare. It might happen again, but more than once at the same time? Even more virtually impossible than just once.

On the other hand, if there's an infinitely powerful designer/creator there's nothing to stop it from crapping out intelligent life whenever the urge strikes it.

Re:If there is life on mars... (1)

scotch (102596) | more than 6 years ago | (#22927972)

How do you figure? All estimates for the likelihood of life arising in the universe are hogwash.

Re:If there is life on mars... (1)

pak9rabid (1011935) | more than 6 years ago | (#22924430)

I wonder what the middle eastern religions, the trifecta judaism, christianity, and islam, will have to say about it. Either the universe is teaming with life, or we are the only ones. I find it hard to believe we are the only ones, so sooner or later will find proof of life somewhere.
Heh, I've always wondered the same thing. I'm sure the quick-thinking clergymen will find a way to incorporate this into their religion. Hell, the Bible's open for interpretation, right?

Re:If there is life on mars... (1)

pak9rabid (1011935) | more than 6 years ago | (#22924522)

...thus solving our problem once and for all.....ONCE AND FOR ALL!!

Re:If there is life on mars... (1)

jamstar7 (694492) | more than 6 years ago | (#22925316)

There has been evidence for evolution since Darwin, hell, since the pyramids were built. Religious conservatives are fairly famous for saying things like "I see your evidence. Show me different evidence, evidence that supports my opinions." Just ask Galileo [wikipedia.org] .

Re:If there is life on mars... (1)

QuantumFTL (197300) | more than 6 years ago | (#22924468)

I wonder what the middle eastern religions, the trifecta judaism, christianity, and islam, will have to say about it.
Religion has survived much more "dangerous" things than finding evidence that there used to be bacteria on Mars. I would imagine they will say something along the lines of "It is the glory of God to conceal a thing: but the honour of kings is to search out a matter."

Either the universe is teaming with life, or we are the only ones.
Or it could be anywhere in between. We have no idea what the true criteria for life is, nor what effect sentient life has on the galaxy as a whole.

Re:If there is life on mars... (1)

Tablizer (95088) | more than 6 years ago | (#22924472)

wonder what the middle eastern religions, the trifecta judaism, christianity, and islam, will have to say about it. Either the universe is teaming with life, or we are the only ones.

Most religions don't really address that. But if they find life and it's not [fill in the blank sect], then its "of the devil" and will probably be zapped.
     

Re:If there is life on mars... (1)

icebrain (944107) | more than 6 years ago | (#22924562)

I seem to remember reading that the Catholic Church (at least) is open to the idea of life elsewhere. The big debate comes with intelligent life: are the aliens Saved?

Re:If there is life on mars... (1, Informative)

Bartab (233395) | more than 6 years ago | (#22924614)

It will be a non-question unless/until other intelligent life is found. A life filled universe will not contradict any of those religions.

Slug! (3, Funny)

Tablizer (95088) | more than 6 years ago | (#22924322)

So my fantasy about pouring salt on a giant Mars Slug to save the astronaut colony still holds hope.

Re:Slug! (1)

jamstar7 (694492) | more than 6 years ago | (#22925384)

Good news is, with the discovery of salt on Mars, you don't have to pack your own all the way across millions of kilometers. That's a looooooooong way to go to find a 7-11, you know...

Cellulose is not the earliest evidence for life. (1)

elyons (934748) | more than 6 years ago | (#22924454)

Stramenopiles (or heterokonts) [wikipedia.org] have incredible supporting evidence as having been on the planet for ~3 billion years. Here is a recent article from Nature [nature.com] and their editorial summary: [nature.com]

Stromatolites are living, layered structures formed in shallow waters by a combination of microbial biofilms -- usually of blue-green algae -- and granular deposits. They are rare today but for about 2 billion years, following their arrival in the fossil record 3.5 billion years ago, they are the main evidence of life on Earth. Modern stromatolites still look like their fossilized forebears. But are the modern microbes remnants of ancient ecosystems or just latecomers following a similar lifestyle? A metagenomic study of the bacteriophage communities in modern stromatolites and thrombolites (like stromatolites but with an irregular internal structure) shows that stromatolite-associated phages are very different from each other and from any other ecosystem studied so far. This finding strengthens the hypothesis that modern stromatolites are remnants of ancient ecosystems.

So what else is new? No life on Mars. (-1, Flamebait)

Simonetta (207550) | more than 6 years ago | (#22924534)

There isn't any life on Mars. There probably has never been any life on Mars. What difference would it make if there had ever been?

    There's life here. It's fragile. Mars is just a dot in the night sky. It's not worth dreams or fantasies.

    And it's certainly not worth spending any money to go there (or send machines there). Because there is nothing there. Get over it.

    If you want cold lifeless desert, go to Death Valley or Arabia or the Gobi. It's much closer. You get the same empty experience, and, most importantly, you don't cost your fellow taxpayers any money.

    There are some fools in Slashdotland that will stand there with a straight face and tell you that we need to pay for interplanetary exploration because we might destroy life on earth and therefore need to have another place to go.

    There is no other place to go. Life can not be supported off the earth. Reality is not science fiction. Hollywood is just a green screen and pixel manipulation.

    If you want to protect live on earth, then stop doing things that will destroy life on earth. Stop making hydrogen bombs. Some fooling around with DNA-altered diseases. Make the people who are doing these things stop doing these things.

    Stop pretending that your techno-fantasies are somehow grounded in reality. The earth is our home, it's our only home. We aren't going anywhere else. There's no other place to go. Every other place is too far away and can't support life in the long term.

    They're just dots in the night sky. This is reality. Accept it.

that's not the reason... (2, Insightful)

sofar (317980) | more than 6 years ago | (#22924660)


The real reason we want to explore Mars?

        Because we can

or, a variant after my favorite mountaineer (after the late Edmund Hillary):

        Because it's there

Stopping us from dreaming will make humanity dull and suicidal. Even though none of us might actually come to live the day that humans walk on the surface of Mars, doesn't mean that it is wrong to dream about it and start planning humanities future today.

Don't hide in your house from wonderful things that could be. Embrace the future and help make dreams come true!

Re:that's not the reason... (1)

MightyMartian (840721) | more than 6 years ago | (#22925466)

There's a real down-to-earth problem to this sort of attitude. Basic research, even in areas that may seem quite remote from anything practical, is absolutely key to advancement. You simply don't know in advance how basic research, whether it's some guy in the desert digging up dinosaur bones or lost cities, or a xenobiologist dreaming up new kinds of biochemistries, will ultimately aid humanity. To simply kill any research because one can't imagine an immediate benefit is a recipe for stagnation and lost opportunities.

Re:that's not the reason... (0, Troll)

Simonetta (207550) | more than 6 years ago | (#22925834)

Basic research, even in areas that may seem quite remote from anything practical, is absolutely key to advancement.

  Au contraire, mon ami, focused precision research is the absolute key to advancement in the 21st century. Unfocused research remote from practicality is just pissing in the wind at best and theft of public resources at worst. The era of the professional scientist, using the government funds of some superpower, doing basic research is a 20th century conceit that is effectively over.

    The money isn't there anymore. The superpowers are broke. The long-term focused killer problems that need immediate attention of public funds are real, here and now.

To simply kill any research because one can't imagine an immediate benefit is a recipe for stagnation and lost opportunities.

    In the real world, To simply fund any research because one can't imagine an immediate benefit is a recipe for stagnation and lost opportunities.

Re:that's not the reason... (1)

sofar (317980) | more than 6 years ago | (#22926182)

this is an absolute troll-like response, you're literally twisting his words around. Grow up.

Re:that's not the reason... (1)

Simonetta (207550) | more than 6 years ago | (#22925768)

The real reason we want to explore Mars?

                Because we can


No you can't. It's millions of miles away. It's technologically possible to fire off an expensive rocket (hey, shit! it's not your money), but it's impossible to explore the place. The reports returned from the very expensive rockets that have been sent there indicate that the place is a dead dusty dry place. If it were 10,000 kilometers away from where you lived on earth, you wouldn't have any interest in it. So what makes a dead, dry place special when it's millions of miles away? Nothing!

  Nobody is saying that humanity should stop dreaming. Focus dreams into stories and movies. When someone takes public funds for 'dreams' of trillion dollar projects to develop a dead rock millions of miles away, they aren't dreaming, they're sckeaming to rip off the public treasury for their own profit and call it 'science'. Fantasy is not science, and spending money on space exploration is stealing money from important realistic projects that need to be now...here on earth.

    If you are serious about planning humanitie's future, then work on the problems of over-population, climate change, economic collapse, and environmental catastrophe that are happening now...here on earth.

    To talk about space exploration and ignore real problems is to talk like a thief and a fool. Both of which we have too many of already. Grow up already and enter the real world.

Thank you.

Re:that's not the reason... (4, Insightful)

ScrewMaster (602015) | more than 6 years ago | (#22926114)

To talk about space exploration and ignore real problems is to talk like a thief and a fool. Both of which we have too many of already. Grow up already and enter the real world.

Well, it's a damned good thing the Queen of Spain didn't think like you.

Re:that's not the reason... (2, Insightful)

sofar (317980) | more than 6 years ago | (#22926212)

I've got news for you:

      We *are* exploring Mars and we have been doing so for a long time already.

Check your tax return this year and see how much money you paid into extraterrestrial research. You'll be surprised.

      "To talk about space exploration and ignore real problems is to talk like a thief and a fool."

I guess all little boys who want to be astronauts on this world are thieves?

Re:that's not the reason... (1)

ScrewMaster (602015) | more than 6 years ago | (#22926330)

The real reason we want to explore Mars?

Because we can


So, to put this another way, the best reason we can come up with for exploring Mars is the exact same one that dogs use to lick their balls?

Re:So what else is new? No life on Mars. (3, Insightful)

MightyMartian (840721) | more than 6 years ago | (#22924878)

If you want cold lifeless desert, go to Death Valley or Arabia or the Gobi. It's much closer. You get the same empty experience, and, most importantly, you don't cost your fellow taxpayers any money.


None of these, of course, are actually lifeless.

Re:So what else is new? No life on Mars. (1)

grahamd0 (1129971) | more than 6 years ago | (#22925234)

If you want cold lifeless desert, go to Death Valley or Arabia or the Gobi. It's much closer. You get the same empty experience, and, most importantly, you don't cost your fellow taxpayers any money.


None of these, of course, are actually lifeless.
Also, only one of them is consistently cold.

Re:So what else is new? No life on Mars. (-1, Troll)

Simonetta (207550) | more than 6 years ago | (#22925996)

Earth deserts are hot in the day and cold in the night. I am assuming that the deserts on Mars are cold all the time because they are millions of miles further away from the sun.

    What difference does it make? If a place is more often than not outside the temperature range of 0-100 degrees F, then it can't sustain human life.

    If a place can't sustain human life, and is millions of miles away from where humans live, then anyone who seriously advocates spending public funds to go there is fucking crazy by any accepted clinical definition of the term.

    Hopefully I'm not talking about you. In the present era, anyone who seriously talks about interplanetary travel is a fool and deserves to be publicly treated as one. To spend public money for 'research' in this area is a theft of public funds. And people who take public funds for 'research into interplanetary travel' are criminals who belong in jail.

    This is true regardless of whatever some hallucinatory public officials promise the 'scientific community' in speeches.

Re:So what else is new? No life on Mars. (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#22926866)

But due to this 'criminal research', we now know interplanetary travel is 100% possible, and know exactly what is involved and needed to do it.

Now we know exactly what it would cost, and what materials are needed, and the time scale for building the ship, and the type of colony we would need to send with it.

By your logic, if the answers to the above questions happened to be 'its super easy and cheap', you personally just tried to rob humanity of that easy cheap ability.
Granted it isn't easy or cheap, but its not like you knew that or anything.

You want people that give us factual knowledge in jail? That is the crime. Look how well it worked out for all the governments and rulers that have tried it.

Some would say you should be in jail for that crime. It's not like you are using your mind anyway, so no real loss to you or humanity.

Re:So what else is new? No life on Mars. (-1, Troll)

Simonetta (207550) | more than 6 years ago | (#22925898)

If you want cold lifeless desert, go to Death Valley or Arabia or the Gobi. It's much closer. You get the same empty experience, and, most importantly, you don't cost your fellow taxpayers any money.

None of these, of course, are actually lifeless.


They are lifeless in the sense that they can't sustain human life, which is the only important thing in the galaxy to humans like you and me.

    Stop being a pretentious twit. You, and all the other people who are seriously advocating spending billions of dollars of space exploration, are making the entire civilized community of the world look like selfish nitwits to billions of people who live on the edge of prosperity (but can watch what we say and do).

    Earth problems are real; space exploration is fantasy. Grow up and start contributing to solving the real problems of the real world.

    Thank you.

Re:So what else is new? No life on Mars. (1)

MightyMartian (840721) | more than 6 years ago | (#22925994)

You make a moronic statement, and then attack me as a pretentious twit. It's little wonder that such a fuzzy mind cannot imagine anything beyond his nose.

Re:So what else is new? No life on Mars. (1)

Simonetta (207550) | more than 6 years ago | (#22926018)

You make a moronic statement,...

  Please be more specific about which of my many reasonable and rational statements you consider to be 'moronic'.

Re:So what else is new? No life on Mars. (1)

MightyMartian (840721) | more than 6 years ago | (#22926068)

You made a clearly inaccurate statement about the locales you mentioned. That shows your ignorance. Did you honestly think such a stupid piece of rhetoric would pass muster around here? If so, then add that to the list of your stupidities.

Re:So what else is new? No life on Mars. (1)

Simonetta (207550) | more than 6 years ago | (#22926246)

You made a clearly inaccurate statement about the locales you mentioned. That shows your ignorance.

Well, excuse me... I'm not polishing my doctorate thesis here. I'm typing Slashdot comments.

I said that the extereme regions of desert on the earth are essentially lifeless. What I meant is not that they don't have the occasional blade of grass or microscopic bug clinging to existence in a brutal environment. I meant that these places can't support human life. Which is the only type of life (if you are a human or a close equivalent) that counts.

In other words, the possible existence of microscopic bugs or one-celled proto-life forms don't mean shit outside of theoretical or theological context, which, in the real world where human and close equivalents actually live, doesn't mean shit.

And the allocation of public funds to investigate the remote possibility that some proto-virus or possible semblance of life might exist on a rock spinning in space millions of miles away is nothing more than a theft of public resources by anyone who would spend public funds (many billions of dollars of public funds) just to check this out.

Since the only people who consider this subject important are so-called scientists who want to rip off public funds in order to fund their fantasies and theologians who believe that the possible existence of life challenges their particular fantasies, then let them pay for interplanetary exploration with their own money. Not public funds.

  And yes, you are a pretentious twit. Get used to it, because I'm not going to be the last person that points this out to you.

Why? (2, Insightful)

rrohbeck (944847) | more than 6 years ago | (#22925016)

What's the probability that life on another planet evolved the same type of chemistry and the same type of macromolecules?
If they found cellulose, I'd argue that it is from organisms that originated on earth. Now if they found (micro)fossils that are completely different from anything we know I'd listen up.

Re:Why? (2, Interesting)

MightyMartian (840721) | more than 6 years ago | (#22925082)

I honestly don't know enough about complex chemistry to answer any question like that. I would suspect, however, that for any carbon-based life, carbohydrates are going to be an absolute requirement for releasing and utilizing energy (ie. ATP). In that case, you're likely going to find related chemistry (starches, cellulose, etc.) in such ecosystems, even if they are unrelated to or only distantly related to life on this planet.

Now, of course, if life is silicon based, then you're right, you would have an entirely alien chemistry, and would have to look for very different things.

Re:Why? (1)

hyades1 (1149581) | more than 6 years ago | (#22925592)

There is ample evidence that meteorites found in Antarctica have their origin on Mars. I wouldn't be terribly surprised if, in the event that indications of life are found elsewhere in the solar system, it turns out to be similar in many ways to life on Earth.

We don't know (1)

dreamchaser (49529) | more than 6 years ago | (#22927688)

We don't know how many templates there are for life or the frequency of them. For all we know life follows a very similar chemical pattern everywhere it ariese. Or not. That's the point. We don't know, but it's worth looking into.

Well ... (1)

ScrewMaster (602015) | more than 6 years ago | (#22926064)

since there don't appear to be any Martians left, I'd say they weren't worth their salt.

The real reason (1)

techdolphin (1263510) | more than 6 years ago | (#22927852)

It is obvious why there is no life on Mars. The men made all the women go to Venus so they could watch football. Once they decided they needed women, they could not find Venus and refused to ask for directions.
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