Uncovering the Spark of Life

This summer, NASA’s Perseverance rover will set out on a voyage to the edge of the Jezero crater on Mars. The goal of the mission is to learn more about our neighboring planet, and to collect core samples that will one day return to Earth. The hope is that by studying the ancient carbonate rocks that line the northern edge of the crater, we might glean signs of life. Anything we find there, even fossilized remnants of a more verdant past, may offer priceless clues about the initial spark of life on our own planet.

Mars is big, and each costly mission can only cover so much ground—so some guiding principles are necessary to narrow the search. Even if we assume life on Earth and Mars arose independently, we can look to the most ancient forms of life on Earth for clues about where and what to look for on the red planet. So far, the favored approach has been to focus on a common behavior of all known life forms: the ability to harvest energy from the environment. What has emerged from the study of diverse metabolic systems is that the myriad tactics by which cells accomplish this feat all boil down to a shared strategy. In a word: electricity.

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