UNLV Team Tackles Mars’ Phosphate Problem


Let’s be clear about one thing: UNLV’s Christopher Adcock, Paul Forster and Elisabeth Hausrath did not discover life on Mars. What the trio—respectively, a graduate student, an assistant professor of chemistry and an assistant professor of geochemistry—did do, however, is remove one potential obstacle blocking theories about how life might have existed on Mars. Thus, they cleared the way for further study. Hausrath, the project’s lead investigator, explains.

What did your research show, exactly, and why does it matter enough to be published in the journal Nature Geoscience?

Our work showed that it’s likely there was more phosphorous in environments with water in them on early Mars than in similar environments on early Earth. This is important because phosphate is needed for all life we know of on Earth.

There are a lot of assumptions there—that there was water on Mars at some point, and that any potential life form there would be similar to those here.

There is a lot of evidence for water on Mars now, and we would assume that a habitable environment has water. The chemical qualities of phosphate are well-suited for life. Because of that, there’s something scientists call the phosphate problem: The lack of it might have been a stumbling block to the origin of life on Mars. Based on our work, it appears there might have been more phosphate available on early Mars than on early Earth.

So, you took the first step toward solving the phosphate problem. How did you do it?

We know from [NASA’s] Mars Rovers that two igneous minerals [volcanic rocks]—merrillite and chlorapatite—were abundant on early Mars. So, we created them in our lab, powdered them, washed them, removed particles, put them in a batch reactor and added water. Then we measured the calcium and phosphorous as the mineral dissolved. … This is fundamental data. Future work might include looking at dissolving these minerals specifically under Martian conditions. But it’s pretty solid.

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