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Posted on Sunday, September 11 - 2005

" The US space agency NASA has resumed its search for life on Mars with the launch of the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. Nasa's mantra for seeking life beyond Earth is "follow the water", and Mars seems to have lots of it, albeit mostly frozen into ice or permafrost. Just this Mond..."

Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter

The US space agency NASA has resumed its search for life on Mars with the launch of the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. Nasa's mantra for seeking life beyond Earth is "follow the water", and Mars seems to have lots of it, albeit mostly frozen into ice or permafrost. Just this Monday a US scientist told the British Association festival of science that the sands of Mars could contain up to 50% snow and ice.One fact that is often glossed over, however, is that water may be a necessary condition for life, but it is far from sufficient. Nobody has a clue about how life may emerge from non-living substances, and what else might be needed.Because even thesimplest living cell is immensely complex, the odds of such a thing forming by chance are virtu ally zero.

If that's the way it happened, then life is a freak phenomenon, and we will almost certainly be alone in the universe. However, the search for life beyond Earth, which underpins the burgeoning field of astrobiology, is based on a belief that chance played only a subordinate role. Instead, some sort of "life principle" is envisaged to be at work in the universe, coaxing matter along the road to life against the raw odds.The Nobel prize-winning biologist Christian de Duve has dubbed the life principle "a cosmic imperative". Attractive though that may be, there is no direct evidence that the laws of nature are slanted in favour of life. If we found life on Mars or some other planet, and could prove it started from scratch independently of life on Earth, it wouldbolster the idea of a life principle. Meanwhile it remains an act of faith. De Duve thinks life will emerge more or less automatically on all Earth-like planets. But no planet is more Earth-like than Earth itself. If life is indeed a cosmic imperative, we might expect it to have started many times over on our home planet.Biologists insist that all known life stems from a single origin. Each species represents a branch on the great tree of life that derives from a universal common ancestor. Support for this view comes from the fact that many specific, complicated features of organisms, such as their genetic code, are the same in all identified species and would be most unlikely to have evolved independently more than once.But there is a flaw in this reasoning. The vast majority of organisms are microbes, and you can't tell much about their innards simply by looking. Microbiologists have developed ways ofseq......


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