Who’s Out There?—Minimal Cells, on Mars First?3 min read

Why does Mars look like a good candidate for generating life on EarthSteven Benner , the chemist who started the Foundation for Applied Molecular Evolution, “…presented the idea at a geochemistry conference last August (Discover Magazine June 2014 p. 22). Based on recent evidence, he believes life may have begun on Mars, “…then caught a ride on a space rock to our planet, where things evolved from there…”

Benner has focused on RNA as a likely precursor to life, a precursor to DNA, since it appears and self-replicates more easily from organic molecules. Since water disrupts RNA, Earth could have been less likely a place of origin than Mars, which was much drier. Also, Earth’s oceans could have diluted borate and molybdate so they could not stabilize ribose or reconstruct other sugars to make ribose.

Volcanic eruptions and meteors could have carried primitive RNA critters to Earth within nine months. Later, Earth was probably better at sustaining life that creating it, since its magnetic field could have protected life from solar radiation.

Chris McKay at NASA suggests that first we must find life on Mars. Its relationship to life on Earth may tell the rest of the story. I wonder how this fits in with the Irwin-Schulze-Makuch theory that Viking has already found hydrogen peroxide-based life there.

One of the Projects listed on syntheticbiology.org is the Minimal Cell Project (MCP). In a search of clues to astrobiology in alife studies, this project sounds more closely related to problems in astrobiology than some of the robotic studies or development of educable software, the hard and soft versions of alife work.

The site listed the Church, Forster and Luisi labs as active in the MCP. It published an interesting paper in August 2006 called “Toward Synthesis of a Minimal Cell” by Anthony C. Forster and George C. Church. (msb.embopress.org/contents/2/1/45) The paper declared that it is now  possible to construct a “…chemical system capable of replication and evolution.”

Fed by small molecular nutrients and requiring only 151 genes, a stepwise “integration” of RNA, DNA and proteins has begun to build blocks leading to a life form. Safety is assured by creating a dependence on laboratory reagents and conditions for viability. The self-assembly is thought to be learned in a definite sequence that is “energetically favored.” Enzymes and the energy source are critical, as we know from extremophile studies.

In a 2010 article, M. C. Jewett and A. C. Forster (www.nebi.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2952674/) agree with astrobiology concerns that synthesizing minimal cells—those with genes and “…biomolecular machinery necessary for basic life…” – is useful for understanding “core biology.” Minimal Cell Project (MCP) research efforts include a “top down’ reduction of bacterial genomes in vivo and “DNA/RNA/protein/membrane syntheses in vivo [bottoms up].”

Again, the complexity of cellular life makes clear the major hurdles encountered, and we are left with a sense of awe at the miracle of life on Earth and how it is so varied and clever at finding ways to survive, evolving in a wide range of extreme conditions and remote niches.

Cary Neeper
Author of The Webs of Varok
Nautilus silver award 2013 YA
ForeWord finalist 2012 adult SF
Books, On Writing, Characters and More– ArchivesofVarok.com
Book Reviews– www.goodreads.com/Cary_Neeper
Animal Sentience– www.ladailypost.com
Complexity, Bio, Biblio and Links– caryneeper.com
Astrobiology— astronaut.wpengine.com


Cary Neeper is an avid student of complexity theory, sustainability, steady-state economics, and the impact of cosmology on issues of science and religion. She grew up in the foothills of Hayward, California, where she helped rack dried fruit on her father’s 40-acre apricot ranch. After studying zoology/chemistry and religion at Pomona College and medical microbiology at the University of Wisconsin, she moved with her husband to northern New Mexico, where they raised their family. The Neepers still live in the Southwest with a friendly menagerie of dogs, fish, chickens, geese, ducks and a turkey called Little Bear. Cary plays string bass with local folk, symphony and jazz groups and tennis with local retired physicists. She paints landscapes in acrylics, including the cover art for her first Penscript title, The Webs of Varok. Cary's first novel and Webs of Varok prequel A Place Beyond Man was originally published in 1975 by Charles Scribner’s Sons, Dell, and Millington, London. Cary re-released A Place Beyond Man as an Author’s Guild Backinprint edition, now available from online booksellers. Its themes of sustainability and interspecies cooperation have now grown into new adventures for its human, elll and varok family as they travel the alternate 21st century Solar System in the five-volume Archives of Varok, coming from Penscript Publishing House in 2012–2014. Cary’s other works include two musical science fiction comedies “U.F.F.D.A.!” and “Petra and the Jay,” as well as newspaper and magazine articles, essays, short stories, and book reviews for The Christian Science Monitor.


  1. AvatarShyam Chathuranga Reply

    I’m really interested to hear how the life formed on earth. So far I read about one theory which says that the life on earth is due to chemosynthetic organisms plus photosynthesis process. That theory is awesome like this one.

    Even there are many evidences on mars for life, have they found any living organism there? My curiosity is never ending on these stuffs!


    1. AvatarCary Neeper Reply

      Hi Shyam: So far no life has been found on Mars–maybe. The Viking mission may have found something that was not water-based. results may have been different if hydrogen peroxide base was the solvent. We will keep watching the reports from NASA and ESA as results from Enceladus’s “geysers” and Europa studies come in. The bottom line seems to be that intelligent life is very precious, a result of billions of years of very complex processes, hence very difficult to start up with our simple wet chemistry tries in our labs. Stay tuned to “Who’s Out There.” I write once per month.

  2. AvatarCarolyn (Cary) Neeper Reply

    You might like to read the work of Louis Irwin and Dirk Schulze-Makuch “Cosmic Biology.” It is an excellent description of the biochemistry needed to support exolife in different environments. In his book “We Are Not Alone” Schulze-Makuch” describes how the Viking experiments found life on Mars that was based on a hydrogen peroxide solvent. His theory is that the organisms couldn’t survive for long with the water used. Extremeophiles on Earth have opened up more possibilities for these studies, but the wet chemistry attempts to discover how life started on Earth have run into the challenges that complexity presents. Perhaps it’s the work of billions, not even millions, of years. For more information search Wikipedia for “abiogenesis” or “artificial life.”

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