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Researchers are developing an instrument that would search through samples of Martian dirt, isolating any genetic material from microbes that might be present — bugs that are living or that died relatively recently, within the last million years or so. Scientists could then use standard biochemical techniques to analyze any resulting genetic sequences, comparing them to what we find on Earth
"It’s a long shot,” said MIT researcher Chris Carr, who's working on the life-detecting device, in a statement. "But if we go to Mars and find life that’s related to us, we could have originated on Mars. Or if it started here, it could have been transferred to Mars. Either way, Carr added, "we could be related to life on Mars. So we should at least be looking for life on Mars that’s related to us."
The idea that all Earth life could be descended from Martian organisms may not be fully mainstream — but it's not too crazy to dismiss, either. While the Martian surface appears to be cold, dry and lifeless today, there is plenty of evidence that the planet was much warmer and wetter in the distant past, billions of years ago. Here on Earth, life almost invariably occupies any niche that contains liquid water. So ancient Mars may have once supported some form of life — perhaps even before Earth did, researchers said.
If that's the case, these Mars microbes may have colonized Earth, zipping through interplanetary space aboard rocks blasted off the Martian surface by asteroid impacts. An estimated 1 billion tons of Martian rock have made this journey over the years, researchers said. And microbes are incredibly hardy, so it's possible that some bugs could have survived the asteroid impact and the trip through space to a new planet, they added. Orbital dynamics show that it's about 100 times easier for rocks to travel from Mars to Earth than the other way around, Carr said.
The proposed instrument, being developed by researchers at MIT and Harvard, aims to do just that. The device — known as the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Genomes, or SETG — would take a sample of Martian soil and process it to separate out any possible organisms, living or dead (within the last million years or so). While finding anything on the Martian surface might be a long shot, digging a little deeper could bear fruit; researchers have found evidence over the years that liquid water may lurk underground. Also, subterranean environments are more protected from the harmful ultraviolet radiation bombarding the Martian surface, making life more likely to survive underground.