Life on Mars? Scientists hope to find it by decoding Martian DNA

October 19, 2012 by Karen Kaplan

Apparently, there just aren't enough genomes for Craig Venter to sequence here on Earth, so he's making plans to send a DNA sequencer to Mars.

"There will be life forms there," Venter said, with his usual confidence, at a Wired Health conference this week in New York.

If he can build a machine to find it, the next steps would be to decode its DNA, beam it back to Earth, put those into a cell and then boot up a form in a biosecure lab.

It may sound far-fetched, but assuming that there is DNA to be found on the Red Planet - a big assumption, to be sure - the notion of equipping a future Mars rover to sequence the DNA isn't so crazy.

Venter has already sent his yacht around the globe to scoop up seawater and sequence whatever DNA it found in . He has also been working on technology to create small genomes from scratch and insert them into living cells to bring these organisms to life. The difference now is that all of this technology would be applied to Mars.

It's highly unlikely that any DNA-based life forms could survive on the , so Venter's "biological teleporter" (as he dubbed it) would dig under the surface for samples to sequence. If they find anything, "it would take only 4.3 minutes to get the Martians back to Earth," he said. "Now we can rebuild the Martians in a P4 lab."

Venter isn't the only one looking for Martian DNA. According to a report in the MIT Technology Review, so is Jonathan Rothberg, founder of the company Ion Torrent.

Rothberg is working with NASA-funded scientists from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard to adapt his company's Personal Machine for use on Mars, the report says. It's part of a NASA astrobiology project known as the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Genomes, or SETG.

MIT research scientist Christopher Carr is part of a group that's "building a miniature RNA/ to search for life beyond Earth," according to his website. "Top places to look include Mars, Enceladus (a moon of Saturn), and Europa (a moon of Jupiter)."

Carr told Tech Review that one of the biggest challenges is shrinking Ion Torrent's 30-kilogram machine down to a mere 3 kg - light enough to fit on a Mars rover.

That's just one of the hurdles. NASA has no firm plans for a rover to succeed Curiosity, the lab-on-wheels that reached the Red Planet in August. Even if a new rover gets the green light, there's no guarantee that a gene sequencer would get one of the coveted spots for research instruments.

Explore further: Are you a Martian? We all could be, scientists say -- and new instrument might provide proof

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2.3 / 5 (12) Oct 19, 2012
I think the whole idea is just marketing. Venter counts on nobody reading PhysOrg, where it was only this week proved in an article that DNA can't survive usable for more than a hundred thousand years. Or else there would still have to be life on Mars.

But that makes headlines and helps keep Venter a household name. You can never underestimate the value of that, especially now that some folks have presented ideas of sequencing the entire genome of an individual while having a cup of tea instead of taking a two-week vacation waiting for the results, like Venter's machines do.

3.5 / 5 (11) Oct 19, 2012
Umm... if you've finished busting a blood vessel there, Venter's working from the presumption of extant, not fossil, life.

That you question his motivations when you haven't even understood his aims is asinine, but even if you were right, would his crazed lust for infamy detract in any way from the scientific importance of the result? We obviously lack the wherewithal for a public effort to compete in the runnings as happened with the HGP, NASA's only looking for fossil life and won't go further in the immediate future barring a positive result on that count... IMHO if it takes an evil genius on an ego trip to make first contact, so be it...
2.1 / 5 (8) Oct 19, 2012
If only. Finding DNA on mars might be possible, but just because you can sequence something doesn't mean you know what the errors are, or how it should be ordered, or the cellular plasma should be, or what the egg proteins and amounts should be, or the temperature for proper development should be, etc. etc. etc.
1.1 / 5 (7) Oct 19, 2012
Even if lightning did strike and we find live on Mars, would our Earth-developed (Terran?) DNA analysers even work on Mars? What if there are three or five base pairs instead of our four? Regardless, it is starting to sound worth considering (to me, at least) including DNA sequencers on future Mars probes.
3.8 / 5 (6) Oct 20, 2012
Okay, I'll try it again. What if there are three or five NUCLEOBASES in Martian genetics, and not the four we have here on Earth? Would our sequencers work then? Is this a stupid question just because I don't know genetic science?

Look, I don't mind being downrated if I am making some moronic statements as we hear here from time to time, like going off on an ad hominen attack or political rant totally unrelated to the article. It would be nice, though, if one of you dicks who 1-rated me would at least have the decency to leave a comment pointing out, say, that I incorrectly said, for instance, 'base pair' instead of 'nucleobase'.

1.6 / 5 (8) Oct 20, 2012
PhotonX you missed another moronic statement:

If there's DNA, God put it there to test us.

I don't know how achievable this is, but I'm sure someone would have told him if it wasn't impossible. He may want fame but would he really waste the millions of dollars he'd have to sacrifice for this if it has been made clear to him it wasn't possible?
1.7 / 5 (9) Oct 20, 2012
The thing that gets me about this is that they're jumping ahead of themselves a little bit. So, basically, they want to send a device to Mars to sequence genetic material that hasn't yet been discovered? I think that the first step should be to actually find life on Mars, the second would be to analyze it and find out whether it's similar to Earth-based life, and THEN they should try and sequence it's DNA.

There is a very real possibility that life doesn't even exist on Mars. There's also the possibility that Mars-based life is simplistic and doesn't contain any DNA. If either of these are the case, then they would have wasted their time.
1 / 5 (7) Oct 20, 2012
Since the 70's Mars Viking landers w/ life detecting equipment NASA has clearly and purposely avoided sending any similar equipment to Mars (that we know about) for over 30 years, even as similar equipment has shrunk in size and increased in sensitivity by many orders of magnitude. I have to ask why? Why don't you?

Very many photos seem to indicate that Mars is not at all dead but w/ all the tampering by MSSS et al, how is one to really know? Venter, with all his contacts, may know the truth. If he or others want to spend THEIR money to find out, who am I to second guess their motives?

1.8 / 5 (5) Oct 20, 2012
I think the whole idea is just marketing. Venter counts on nobody reading PhysOrg
I do agree: Venter should focus to real contributions to human civilization, not just void phrases and marketing, the collecting of know-how from governmental supported research and attempts to patent every piece of genome, which he recognizes. He's rather disgusting example of how the privately funded research shouldn't behave.
not rated yet Oct 20, 2012
I used to think looking for nucleotides were a complete waste of time. But as the sample return program and its costs have evolved, it is a valuable shortcut that could be researched early on.

Reading up on Curiosity it can identify them in the wet chemistry experiments, and quite possibly their polymers could be seen in the MS portion of the experiment suite.

As for Venter and Rothberg they are to be lauded for their useful greed. They are excellent examples on how researchers and private funds should behave for the good of all.

@ PhotonX:

Today's seqencer's are more or less, but not perfectly, depending on the specific nucleotides.

But base pairing is not too easy to accomplish AFAIK, and they will likely modify the equipment to give indications of heteropolymers. Mostly they rely on transpermia to get the result as informative as possible.
5 / 5 (2) Oct 20, 2012
@ Sinister1811:

For the generic sequencing, see my previous comment.

Recently thermodynamics have been applied to self-replicators, and it turns out as a crucial test of the RNA world. RNA is today the only known nucleotides that are stable enough to be viable yet not too stable to saturate the heat bound for self-replicators.

But whole genome sequencing shows that the RNA/protein world occupied ~ 20 % of the genome lifetime, the DNA UCA another ~ 20 %, and the geosphere oxygenation and domain diversification the rest. Hence any nucleotides useful for sequencing, i.e. quite recent ones, are likely DNA variants.

@ deatopmg:

I'm sure already Wikipedia tells you why: the Viking experiments were mutually inconclusive.

That is the whole reason for getting back to basics with the "look for habitability" program, with first looking for water and now organics and nucleotides specifically.
2 / 5 (4) Oct 21, 2012
The searching of alternative DNA

Are there 'other DNAs' with different formats and architectures existed ? Reading news knows that "DNA" with substitution of alternate sugars are possible for some organisms on Earth or in laboratories. Personal idea is that DNA/RNA 'system' is no longer unique. Due to chemical abundance and many factors the future scanner on Mars should extend its capability to scan broaden elements and alternative structures. For example, the design and construction of the future scanner assumes the existence of alternative DNA and searches it.
not rated yet Oct 21, 2012
@ kevin:

Correct, for genetic material there are many variants proposed or even shown working. DNA can itself take several configurations (which not all are amenable for translation), and DNA and DNA/RNA has been used or proposed in many variants of genetic machinery. And then we have other similar chemistries like TNA (variants of sugar for spiral backbone) or PNA (using peptides instead of sugars for the backbone).

However the thermodynamics of self replicators sets up an evolutionary bottleneck, see my previous comment. Only RNA is currently known to be amenable for the initial self replicators, before protein enzymes can boost the metabolism to sufficiently high free energy reactions.

And DNA is one of a few, if not the only, more durable variants that can evolve after that bottleneck is passed. It doesn't have to happen, but as it happened in another ~ 1 billion years it is sufficiently easy that it likely happened on Mars too. _If_ life evolved there in the first place.
1.9 / 5 (7) Oct 22, 2012
One does wonder where the methane comes from as there appears to be more than expected on an ongoing basis, ie continuously produced and found in the Mars atmosphere as it sloughs off into space...

What do we know about habitats deep under ground, is there enough latent heat that may support a liquid water organic soup in porous deposits or even caves ?

Venter's investigations into these issues and other potential support for his path may well be a risk assessment worth taking. I am keen to see what Curiosity comes up with though !
1.6 / 5 (7) Oct 22, 2012
I think the whole idea is just marketing. Venter counts on nobody reading PhysOrg, where it was only this week proved in an article that DNA can't survive usable for more than a hundred thousand years. Or else there would still have to be life on Mars.
They are searching for DNA of Chinese carp in the great lakes as evidence that they have gotten there. This is a powerful tool to search for life.
liquid water organic soup
This phrase contains four words but zero information.
If there's DNA, God put it there to test us.
I don't know how achievable this is, but I'm sure someone would have told him if it wasn't impossible. He may want fame but would he really waste the millions of dollars he'd have to sacrifice for this if it has been made clear to him it wasn't possible?
Who are you referring to? God? Bwaahaahaaahaaahaha. Please try to be more specific.
1 / 5 (3) Oct 23, 2012
Has any organic macromolecule been found on Mars yet? Does liquid water exist too?

@ Torbjorn_Larsson_OM
And DNA is one of a few,

The intrinsic double helical architecture of DNA is really amazing. Both complex and simple. That's where elegance emerges. Complex - yes, and simple - I guess in many ways once its structure has been solved/known then many reactions and features are intuitively explained and resolved, or automatically rationale or make sense. For example, base pairing. Another is coding both complex and simple, too.
1 / 5 (3) Oct 23, 2012
@ Torbjorn_Larsson_OM

However the thermodynamics of

I guess that is where RNA world can exist with broaden energy tolerance. The effectiveness of polymerases can overcome many problems.

Correct, for genetic material there are many variants proposed or even shown working. DNA can itself

Searching finds that no naturally occuring analogues of DNA/RNA been found yet. Many years ago I query whether alternative DNA is possible. The closest are recombinant DNA and enzymes. There are many new discoveries and topics for example nucleic acid analogues and triple helical polymers. TNA, PNA and some other analogues are less complex than RNA why it is possible the precursors of RNA. With their features less complex than RNA one of the speculations is that they have higher possibility than RNA to be found on Mars. But why there is no discovery on Earth.
2 / 5 (4) Oct 23, 2012
Who are you referring to? God? Bwaahaahaaahaaahaha. Please try to be more specific.

Be more specific? About what? It's clear I'm not talking about God but the guy who wants to check for DNA. Why would God spend millions of dollars to check for DNA on Mars? Of course I'm referring to Venter. That remark about God putting DNA there to test us if it exists, I hope you realise that was the joke that made you laugh. You seem to be under the impression I honestly believe that God has put DNA on Mars, otherwise you'd see I was clearly talking about Venter.

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