NASA’s Mars rover Curiosity has discovered the existence of Boron on Mars, particularly in the Gale Crater, giving us new evidence that the planet may have supported life. How important is boron in supporting life? Boron is considered to be an interesting element by astrobiologists since, on Earth, it is thought to stabilize the sugary molecule ribose. It is a key component of ribonucleic acid or RNA, a molecule that is found in all living cells and drives the metabolic processes. However, ribose is unstable which is why it needs boron to help stabilize it and form RNA.
When boron is dissolved in water, it turns to borate which, in turn, reacts with ribose resulting in RNA. In a new study published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters, scientists looked into data which has been gathered by Curiosity’s ChemCam (Chemistry and Camera) instrument, which cuts into rocks using a laser to see what kind of minerals it is composed of.
ChemCam detected Boron in calcium-sulfate mineral veins that found their way through bedrock in Gale Crater, which is a 96-mile wide (154 kilometers) crater the Mars rover was exploring at that time. The veins were caused by ancient ground water, indicated that it contained borate.
Scientists are quite excited about these possibilities. According to the lead author of the study, Patrick Gasda, a postdoctoral researcher at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, this is a very important discovery given that borates play a vital role in making RNA – one of the building blocks of life. He also said that finding boron on Mars “further opens the possibility that life could have once arisen on the planet.”
“Borates are one possible bridge from simple organic molecules to RNA. Without RNA, you have no life. The presence of boron tells us that, if organics were present on Mars, these chemical reactions could have occurred,” Gasda adds.
Scientists have long believed that the earliest “proto-life” on Earth is from an “RNA World.” In such an environment, individual RNA strands contain genetic information that can copy themselves. It is this ability to replicate information that is considered to be one of the necessities for basic lifelike systems to happen.