Follow the nitrogen to extraterrestrial life

May 4, 2006

The narrow search for water may miss important clues, say USC geobiologists
The great search for extraterrestrial life has focused on water at the expense of a crucial element, say geobiologists at the University of Southern California.

Writing in the Perspectives section of the May 5 issue of Science, four USC researchers propose searching for organic nitrogen as a direct indicator of the presence of life. Nitrogen is essential to the chemistry of living organisms.

Even if NASA were to find water on Mars, its presence only would indicate the possibility of life, said Kenneth Nealson, Wrigley Professor of earth sciences in the USC College of Letters, Arts and Sciences.

"It's hard to imagine life without water, but it's easy to imagine water without life," Nealson said.

The discovery of nitrogen on the Red Planet would be a different story.

"If you found nitrogen in abundance on Mars, you would get extremely excited because it shouldn't be there," Nealson said.

The reason has to do with the difference between nitrogen and carbon, the other indispensable organic element.

Unlike carbon, nitrogen is not a major component of rocks and minerals. This means that any substantial organic nitrogen deposits found in the soil of Mars, or of another planet, likely would have resulted from biological activity.

Dimming the hopes of life-on-Mars believers is the makeup of the planet's atmosphere. The abundant nitrogen in Earth's atmosphere is constantly replenished through biological activity. Without the ongoing contribution of living systems, the atmosphere slowly would lose its nitrogen.

The extremely low nitrogen content in the Martian atmosphere suggests that biological nitrogen production is close to zero.

However, the authors write, it is possible that life existed on Mars at some hypothetical time when nitrogen filled the atmosphere.

Co-author Douglas Capone, Wrigley Professor of environmental biology in USC College, said NASA should establish a nitrogen detection program alongside its water- seeking effort. He noted that next-generation spacecraft will have advanced sampling capabilities.

"What we're suggesting here is basically drilling down into geological strata, which they're going to be doing for water anyway," Capone said.

"The real smoking gun would be organic nitrogen."

Said Nealson: "If your goal is to search for life, it would be wise to include nitrogen."

In their acknowledgments, the authors thanked the students of the Spring 2004 Geobiology & Astrobiology course at USC, with whom Nealson and Capone began their discussion on how to search for life outside earth.

"That's really what stimulated this [paper]," Nealson said.

Source: University of Southern California

Explore further: Could there be life in Pluto's ocean?

Related Stories

Could there be life in Pluto's ocean?

December 1, 2016

Pluto is thought to possess a subsurface ocean, which is not so much a sign of water as it is a tremendous clue that other dwarf planets in deep space also may contain similarly exotic oceans, naturally leading to the question ...

What is the weather like on Venus?

December 5, 2016

Venus is often called Earth's "Sister Planet" because of all the things they have in common. They are comparable in size, have similar compositions, and both orbit within the Sun's habitable zone. But beyond that, there are ...

The life cycle of a flood revealed

October 21, 2016

A NASA analysis of a 2015 Texas flood is the first to document the full life cycle and impacts of a flood on both land and ocean. Using data from NASA's Soil Moisture Active Passive (SMAP) satellite and other satellite instruments, ...

Recommended for you

Hubble catches a transformation in the Virgo constellation

December 9, 2016

The constellation of Virgo (The Virgin) is especially rich in galaxies, due in part to the presence of a massive and gravitationally-bound collection of over 1300 galaxies called the Virgo Cluster. One particular member of ...

Scientists sweep stodgy stature from Saturn's C ring

December 9, 2016

As a cosmic dust magnet, Saturn's C ring gives away its youth. Once thought formed in an older, primordial era, the ring may be but a mere babe – less than 100 million years old, according to Cornell-led astronomers in ...

Khatyrka meteorite found to have third quasicrystal

December 9, 2016

(Phys.org)—A small team of researchers from the U.S. and Italy has found evidence of a naturally formed quasicrystal in a sample obtained from the Khatyrka meteorite. In their paper published in the journal Scientific Reports, ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.