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See Inside November 2005

Did Life Come from Another World?

New research indicates that microorganisms could have survived a journey from Mars to Earth
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DUNG HUANG

Most scientists have long assumed that life on Earth is a homegrown phenomenon. According to the conventional hypothesis, the earliest living cells emerged as a result of chemical evolution on our planet billions of years ago in a process called abiogenesis. The alternative possibility--that living cells or their precursors arrived from space--strikes many people as science fiction. Developments over the past decade, however, have given new credibility to the idea that Earth's biosphere could have arisen from an extraterrestrial seed.

Planetary scientists have learned that early in its history our solar system could have included many worlds with liquid water, the essential ingredient for life as we know it. Recent data from NASA's Mars Exploration Rovers corroborate previous suspicions that water has at least intermittently flowed on the Red Planet in the past. It is not unreasonable to hypothesize that life existed on Mars long ago and perhaps continues there. Life may have also evolved on Europa, Jupiter's fourth-largest moon, which appears to possess liquid water under its icy surface. Saturn's biggest satellite, Titan, is rich in organic compounds; given the moon's frigid temperatures, it would be highly surprising to find living forms there, but they cannot be ruled out. Life may have even gained a toehold on torrid Venus. The Venusian surface is probably too hot and under too much atmospheric pressure to be habitable, but the planet could conceivably support microbial life high in its atmosphere. And, most likely, the surface conditions on Venus were not always so harsh. Venus may have once been similar to early Earth.

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