Top Story: September 20, 2013

Signs of Life

methane, mars, nasa, curiosity, cosmic, comets, martians, microbes, microbial, life, earth, rivers, routes, early, humans, migration, out of africa

By Molly Michelson

Here’s a round-up of recent science headlines we didn’t want you to miss!

Ancient Rivers

Without a smart phone or GPS device, how did early humans find their way out of Africa? A study published last week in PLoS One determines that ancient rivers, now covered by the Sahara Desert, provided habitable routes to follow.

Simulating paleoclimates in the region, the researchers found evidence of three major river systems that likely existed in North Africa 130,000–100,000 years ago, but are now largely buried by dune systems in the desert. When flowing, these rivers likely provided fertile habitats for animals and vegetation, creating “green corridors” across the region.

"It's exciting to think that 100,000 years ago there were three huge rivers forcing their way across 1000-km of the Sahara desert to the Mediterranean—and that our ancestors could have walked alongside them," says lead author Tom Coulthard of the University of Hull, UK.

Cosmic Beginnings?

Did life on Earth hail from Mars, as one researcher proposed last month, or comet collisions? Apparently, in both cases, it all has to do with the chemistry. Carl Zimmer, one of our favorite science writers, has a recent New York Times article about the chemistry needed to produce DNA from RNA. And while it doesn’t look like early Earth had those compounds, Mars might have.

Then, earlier this week, a study published in Nature Geoscience finds that the collision of icy comets with planetary bodies could result in the formation of complex amino acids, the building blocks of proteins (and life).

The researchers suggest that this process provides another piece to the puzzle of how life was kick-started on Earth, after a period of time between 4.5 and 3.8 billion years ago when the planet was being bombarded by comets and meteorites.

The team made their discovery by recreating the impact of a comet by firing projectiles through a large high-speed gun. This gun, located at the University of Kent, uses compressed gas to propel projectiles at speeds of 7.15 kilometers per second into targets of ice mixtures, which have a similar composition to comets. The resulting impact created amino acids such as glycine and D- and L-alanine. Sounds like a fun method of discovery…

Speaking of fun collisions, if you want more of them, the Morrison Planetarium at the Academy is featuring Cosmic Collisions in its current show rotation. From the our website:

Creative and destructive, dynamic and dazzling, collisions are a key mechanism in the evolution of the Universe.

Missing Mars Methane

One chemical Mars seems to be missing? Methane. The gas was sought as a possible sign of microbial life currently living on the seemingly barren world. However, despite earlier reports that NASA’s Mars rover, Curiosity, discovered methane on the red planet, NASA reports today in Science that none has been found.

Curiosity’s earlier evidence of methane detection turned out to be within leftover air from Earth. And previous reports of localized methane concentrations up to 45 parts per billion on Mars were based on observations from Earth and from orbit around Mars.

“It would have been exciting to find methane, but we have high confidence in our measurements,” says the report's lead author, Chris Webster. "We measured repeatedly from Martian spring to late summer, but with no detection of methane.”

But don’t give up on microbial Martians just yet… “This important result will help direct our efforts to examine the possibility of life on Mars,” says NASA’s Michael Meyer. "It reduces the probability of current methane-producing Martian microbes, but this addresses only one type of microbial metabolism. As we know, there are many types of terrestrial microbes that don't generate methane.”

Looking for extraterrestrial life? Next month’s Brilliant!Science festival can deliver it to you. Visit this page for more information.

Image: the Tunable Laser Spectrometer on-board Curiosity: NASA/JPL-Caltech

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