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Conclusive evidence for life from Mars? Remember last time!

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1 March 2001 (last updated 15 May 2002)

Many headlines have just proclaimed: “‘Conclusive evidence’ for Martian life”.1 A team led by Dr Imre Friedmann, an NRC senior research fellow at NASA’s Ames Research Center in California’s Silicon Valley, has claimed that further analysis of the famous meteorite labeled ALH84001, supposedly from Mars, has found evidence of life after all. They published their research in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (USA).2

The new ‘evidence’ is tiny (one-millionth of an inch in diameter) crystals of magnetite, a magnetic oxide of iron (Fe3O4). These were analyzed using a new technique called high-power backscattered scanning electron microscopy (SEM-BSE), a method introduced by two of the researchers (J.W. and C.A.) to study endolithic (inside rock) microorganisms. These crystals supposedly show six key features that indicate that they were made by bacteria rather than forming inorganically:

  1. they are in chains, rather than clumped by magnetic attraction
  2. uniform crystal size and shape within chains
  3. gaps between crystals
  4. orientation of elongated crystals along the chain axis
  5. flexibility of chains
  6. a halo interpreted as a possible remnant of a membrane around chains.

In the same issue of PNAS, a NASA research team led by Dr Kathie Thomas-Keprta of NASA’s Johnson Space Center studied single crystals and claimed that their unique shape, which they call truncated hexa-octahedral, is evidence that they were formed by bacteria.3

On earth, magnetotactic bacteria use tiny magnetite crystals for navigation — see The World’s Smallest Compasses.

Just how conclusive is this, and what should creationists think?

  • We should certainly wait till more evidence comes in. Many times, evolutionists have triumphantly announced ‘proofs’ of evolution or something else against the Christian world view, and the secular media uncritically gave them headline status. But later, this evidence has been discredited by further discovery. We have only to remember Archaeoraptor, pushed as ‘proof’ of dinosaur-to-bird evolution by the influential National Geographic, but later exposed as a hoax (see Archaeoraptor hoax update: National Geographic recants!).
  • Much the same headlines erupted about ALH84001 in August 1996, and gullible skeptics gloated over the supposed demise of Christianity, and compromising theologians bent over backwards to accommodate their ‘Christian’ faith (which was already far removed from the Bible by accommodation to evolution/billions of years) to these ‘discoveries’.

But all the ‘proof’ presented back then has been almost universally discounted. For example, there is almost certain proof that the amino acids found in ALH84001 were the result of contamination from Earth,4,5 and other ‘nanofossils’ were merely inanimate magnetite whiskers plus artefacts of transmission microscopy (TEM).6,7 Of course, the humanist-dominated media and assorted ‘skeptics’ didn’t give the retraction anywhere near the same publicity. See also Life on Mars? Separating fact from fiction and Mars claims weaken further.

So we should certainly be cautious when they ‘cry wolf’ again, especially when the authors listed in Ref. 3 are essentially the same as those who dogmatically clung to the old claim in the face of overwhelming contrary evidence in Ref. 6.

  • Not all scientists involved with Mars research agree with the claims. Professor Colin Pillinger, lead scientist on the British-led Beagle 2 effort to land on Mars in 2003, says:

‘This doesn’t actually prove that the evidence in the meteorite is for life on Mars. We cannot say absolutely, hand on heart, that this is something which happened on Mars until we find organic matter in a genuine Martian sample. We have to go to Mars and if there is doubt we will have to bring samples back. If there is still doubt, we will have to send a person there to carry out the experiments in situ.’8

  • Contamination while the meteorite was on Earth is a distinct possibility. Friedmann discounts this because the crystals were in globules of uncontested Martian origin. However, Refs. 4 and 5 show that it’s easy to underestimate the ease of contamination.
  • Keprta et al. say:

‘Unless there is an unknown and unexplained inorganic process on Mars that is conspicuously absent on the Earth and forms truncated hexa-octahedral magnetites, we suggest that these magnetite crystals in the Martian meteorite ALH84001 were likely produced by a biogenic process.’3

However, this would not be the first time that she and her co-workers have underestimated the ability of inorganic processes to produce biogenic-looking structures, if Refs. 6 and 7 are right. [Note added 26 July 2001: This is supported by D.C. Golden’s formation of chains of magnetite crystals which are very similar to those in ALH84001, although not uniform in size. He simply heated siderite (iron (II) carbonate, FeCO3, of the calcite group of carbonate minerals. It’s especially plausible because the crystals in ALH84001 are found in carbonates, and the meteorite has clearly been heated! 9]

  • Crystals, no matter how fancy looking, are actually low-energy, low-information structures; this contrasts with the high energy and high information molecules of living organisms (see What about crystals?). Yet the research teams are certain that the magnetite crystal patterns could not have been formed without the input of the highly directed mechanisms of living organisms.

They are actually using the principle of analogy, since they did not actually see the crystals form, they presume that they formed similarly to those seen forming today in magnetotactic bacteria. However, they are inconsistent—had they found actual micro-organisms far more complex than the magnetite crystal chains, they (because of their materialistic presuppositions) would have attributed their origin to purely non-biological forces.

  • Such origin of life from non-living chemicals (called ‘spontaneous generation’, ‘abiogenesis’ or ‘chemical evolution’) is impossible for the informational reasons mentioned above. It is also impossible for a number of chemical reasons, even under the best conditions (see Q&A: Origin of Life).

The evidence is even more problematic, because the researchers claim that the fossils were blasted from Mars 3.9 billion years ago. Also, Earth’s magnetotactic bacteria use this machinery to work out their depth in water, and this water must have been stagnant; lots of turbulence would make it impossible for bacteria to swim against the current. So this implies that Mars was once covered by ponds and puddles,9 although there is no liquid water today. And because magnetotactic bacteria require oxygen, it means that photosynthesizing organisms must have been active on Mars. Since evolutionists claim that Mars is the same age as Earth (4.5 billion years old), that leaves precious little time for evolution to have produced relatively advanced forms of life that could photosynthesize or navigate by magnetism.

  • Therefore if this report does turn out to be genuine evidence for life on Mars, this life couldn’t have begun there. Rather, it may be Earth life that was somehow transported to Mars. After all, if we grant that the ALH84001 meteorite found its way to Earth from Mars, then it’s hardly impossible for things to be transported out of Earth as well. A violent meteoritic impact could conceivably knock material out, with a speed exceeding escape velocity. Or spores could be carried so high up that the solar wind could move them, and this would be in the right direction to Mars.

This is supported by the claim of the researchers that the magnetic crystal chains are just like those of Earth magnetotactic bacteria. Evolutionists frequently use common structures to ‘prove’ a common ancestry (although a common designer would explain them better), so it’s difficult to believe that almost identical structures evolved independently on different places with vastly different environments.

  • It was certainly a coincidence that the first ‘life from Mars’ fanfare in 1996 came just as the US Congress was proposing to cut NASA’s funding, although they had collected ALH84001 back in 1984. The noted astronomer Sir Fred Hoyle argued that it was perhaps a publicity stunt to gain more government money: ‘considering NASA is absolutely avid to get funding from Congress, one has to be a bit suspicious.’10 It is certainly a coincidence now that the announcement comes just before the new US President is about to announce his budget. To be fair to the researchers in both cases, they presented actual scientific data, although the interpretation of the data is dubious.

Update 18 January 2002: As I said was likely to happen, new data have called the ‘evidence’ for Martian life into question — again! In another paper published in PNAS in November 2001, researchers showed that the detailed morphologies of bacterial magnetite crystals did not match those in the meteorite. They concluded:

In contrast to previous accounts, we argue that the existing crystallographic and morphological evidence is inadequate to support the inference of former life on Mars.11

Update 18 March 2002: Andrea Koziol, associate professor of geology at the University of Dayton, Ohio, has further discredited the ‘evidence’ by duplicating the same structures by purely natural, inorganic means. She made a synthetic rock like the meteorite, heated it to 200°C, then quenched it in water. Koziol said that under heat and pressure, ‘We got the same size, same shape, same beveled edges and same lined-up atoms’ as appear in the meteorite. So she theorized that a natural collision on Mars could have produced the same heat and pressure conditions she simulated in her lab, and produced the structures mistaken for evidence of life.12

Update 15 May 2002: Further research has confirmed the above.13

Magnetic minerals in Martian meteorite ALH 84001 formed as a result of impact heating and decomposition of carbonate; they were never used as compasses by Martian microorganisms. …

Our studies reveal that the planes of atoms in the Martian magnetites are aligned with atomic planes in the carbonate in which the magnetites are embedded. This shows that the magnetites formed in the rock and not inside microorganisms. …

We think that there is now abundant evidence that most and probably all of the magnetites in ALH 84001 formed because of shock heating of carbonate. Faceted magnetites resembling the supposedly biogenic magnetites are crystallographically oriented in the carbonate lattice and could not have formed inside bacteria. We infer that ALH 84001 magnetites differ from abiogenic terrestrial magnetites because terrestrial carbonates never experienced the unique impact history of ALH 84001. …

If any magnetites with the sizes of the supposedly biogenic variety had been deposited in the ALH 84001 carbonate prior to the impact heating that caused oxide precipitation, they could not have retained their original properties. Even supposing that an earlier generation of magnetites were completely impervious to the shock wave that heated the carbonate above about 450oC and were totally immune to any reaction with the shock-heated or shock-melted carbonate … they would certainly have acted as seed crystals during subsequent cooling. Thus any magnetites deposited in the carbonate prior to impact heating would have been coated with new layers of magnetite up to tens of nanometers in thickness. Martian organisms cannot therefore be responsible for the size and shape of any magnetite crystal in the ALH 84001 carbonate.

References

  1. For example, Ivan Noble, ‘Conclusive evidence’ for Martian life, BBC News Online, 26 February 2001. Return to text.
  2. E. Imre Friedmann, Jacek Wierzchos, Carmen Ascaso, and Michael Winklhofer, Chains of magnetite crystals in the meteorite ALH84001: Evidence of biological origin, PNAS98(5):2176–2181, February 27 2001. Return to text.
  3. Kathie L. Thomas-Keprta, Simon J. Clemett, Dennis A. Bazylinski, Joseph L. Kirschvink, David S. McKay, Susan J. Wentworth, Hojatollah Vali, Everett K. Gibson Jr., Mary Fae McKay, and Christopher S. Romanek, Truncated hexa-octahedral magnetite crystals in ALH84001: Presumptive biosignatures, PNAS98(5):2164–2169, February 27 2001. Return to text.
  4. Jeffrey L. Bada et al., A search for endogenous amino acids in Martian meteorite ALH48100, Science279(5349):362–365, 16 January 1998. Return to text.
  5. A.J.T. Jull et al., Isotopic evidence for a terrestrial source of organic compounds in Martian meteorites ALH48100 and Elephant Moraine 79001, Science279(5349):366–369, 16 January 1998. Return to text.
  6. J.P. Bradley, R.P. Harvey & H.Y. McSween, Jr, No ‘nanofossils’ in Martian meteorite, Nature390(6659):454; Reply by David S. McKay, Evertt Gibson Jr., Kathie Thomas Keprta & H. Vali, p. 455. Return to text.
  7. Richard A. Kerr, Putative Martian microbes called microscopy artefacts, Science278(5344):1706–1707, 5 December 1997. This commentary on Ref. 6 reports: ‘Bradley has a counter-rebuttal for each of these defences’. Return to text.
  8. Colin Pillinger, Cited in Ref. 1. Return to text.
  9. Ralph Lorenz, Mars attracts!, New Scientist170(2291):38–40, 19 May 2001. Return to text.
  10. London, Reuters News Media, 8 August 1996. Hoyle said he hoped the NASA claims could be verified: “I’d be very pleased if it was true,” he told the Guardian newspaper. Return to text.
  11. Peter R. Buseck, Rafal E. Dunin-Borkowski, Bertrand Devouard, Richard B. Frankel, Martha R. McCartney, Paul A. Midgley, Mihály Pósfai, and Matthew Weyland, Magnetite morphology and life on Mars, Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA98(24):13490–13495, 20 November 2001. Return to text.
  12. University of Dayton geologist recreates ‘Life on Mars’ evidence in her laboratory, 5 March 2002. Return to text.
  13. Edward R. D. Scott and David J. Barber, Resolution of a Big Argument About Tiny Magnetic Minerals in Martian Meteorite, Planetary Science Research Discoveries, 13 May 2002. Return to text.

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