Can 250 Million-Year-Old Salty Rocks Lead To Discovering Life On Mars?
Westminster Professor And Multi-institutional Research Team May Have New Answers On Where To Look
SALT LAKE CITY – Is it possible that the discovery of 250 million-year-old rocks could lead to finding life on other planets? Through a multidisciplinary study conducted by Dr. Bonnie K. Baxter, an associate professor of biology at Westminster College, that answer could be yes.
Deep in the salt mines of New Mexico, Dr. Baxter and a team of multidisciplinary and multi-institutional researchers discovered biological material preserved in salt crystals from over 250 million years ago – making it the oldest biological material ever discovered on Earth.
The material, known as cellulose, was extracted from salt crystals in the mines. Cellulose is one of the most common organic compounds on Earth and is a familiar substance to most of us as it is a major component of paper products. Cellulose could indeed be one of the best signatures for signs of past life forms due to its resiliency.
“Last week NASA announced they have evidence that salt deposits exist on Mars,” said Dr. Baxter. “Our study is important because it shows that if biological entities can survive for 250 million years in these salt pockets on Earth, than we have reason to believe remnants of life could exist in these salt beds on Mars.”
According to NASA’s press release, the discovered deposits point to places where water was once abundant and where evidence of life from the Red Planet's past might still exist. Baxter’s study suggests that salt can shelter biological material for millions of years and that cellulose, which can handle the weathering of geologic time, is the perfect target molecule for scientists to pursue in asking questions about life off this earth.
Dr. Baxter’s study will be featured on the front cover of the April edition of Astrobiology journal hitting the stands today.
Dr. Baxter, who was also the winner of the 2007 Utah Governor’s Medal for Science and Technology (Science Education), along with Dr. Jack Griffith, professor of microbiology and immunology at the University of North Carolina; Dr. Dennis Powers, Department of Geology and Geological Engineering, University of Mississippi; Smaranda Willcox, research analyst, Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center; and Roger Nelson, U.S. Department of Energy, Carlsbad, N.M., comprised the team that conducted the study.
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