Sending humans to Mars could uncover a disturbing truth about one of life’s greatest mysteries

Where did life on Earth come from?

If humankind successfully lands people on the surface of Mars, we could discover an important clue about the origins of life on Earth – one of the greatest scientific mysteries in human history. A theory called panspermia, which dates back to the 5th century BC, posits that certain life forms can hop between planets, and even star systems, to fertilise them with life.

Following this theory, some scientists suspect that the first life on Earth never formed on our planet at all, but instead, hitched a ride inside planetary fragments from Mars that were flung into space after a powerful impact and eventually fell to Earth.

While some write the theory off as outrageous, others think it could harbour some potential. If true, it could deeply impact how we identify ourselves as a species.

By studying the planet’s geography, atmosphere, and soil composition, planetary scientists know that billions of years ago, Mars was once a warm, wet world with conditions ideal for life.

Why a manned mission to Mars is necessary

None of the landers or satellites we’ve sent to the Red Planet thus far have uncovered evidence of past or present life of any kind.

MartianThe Martian/20th Century Fox

It’s possible that a robot simply cannot dig deep enough or collect enough of the right kind of sample. In the end, it might take a human to explore what robotic rovers cannot.

Plus, what it takes NASA’s best Mars rovers a week to do, a well-equipped human could complete in 15 minutes, according to mechanical engineer and popular science communicator Bill Nye in his latest book Unstoppable: Harnessing Science to Change the World. “If we found microbes on Mars that are clearly related to those on Earth, such a discovery would change the course of human history … everyone everywhere would soon come to feel differently about what it means to be a living thing in the cosmos,” Nye writes.

It won’t be a surprise

This kind of discovery, however, won’t come suddenly, according to Linda Billings, the consultant to NASA’s Astrobiology and Near Earth Object Programs.

“As is the case with most scientific discoveries, the discovery of extraterrestrial life will likely be a prolonged process,” Billings told Business Insider. “Claims of evidence of extraterrestrial life will be subjected to peer review, and other scientists will continue to look for further evidence.”

One example of this prolonged process took place in the mid-90’s when a team of scientists announced that they found convincing evidence for extraterrestrial life inside of a Martian meteorite – a rock that formed on Mars, were ejected into space after a powerful impact by an asteroid or comet, and eventually landed on Earth. To date, scientists have identified 132 Martian meteorites.

MartianMeteorCourtesy of Heritage Auctions

In 1996, the NASA-led team published a paper in the prestigious journal Science that they’d identified grooves and organic compounds in the ‘ALH8400’ Martian meteorite, discovered in Antarctica, that could be fossilised evidence for extraterrestrial nanobacteria.

“The astrobiology community spent months into years investigating those claims,” Billings said. “Eventually a consensus emerged in the science community that the original claim of fossil evidence of martian life did not stand up to scrutiny.”

If astrobiologists do eventually discover that life came from Mars, NASA will be ready for what happens next.

NASA explores the repercussions

In 2011, NASA and the Library of Congress established the Baruch S. Blumberg NASA/Library of Congress Astrobiology Program, which explores the philosophical, religious, ethical, legal, and cultural impact related to the possible discovery of extraterrestrial life.

The current chair of the program, Nathani Comfort, who is also a scientific historian and professor at the Institute of the History of Medicine at The Johns Hopkins University, shared his thoughts with Business Insider about what the notion that we all have a little Martian in us might mean:

“It wouldn’t alter the views of those who hold literal interpretations of Scripture. And the rest of evolution would follow as before,” Comfort said. “The tabloids would have a field day of course. But once the headlines faded and the conferences ended, I think life would continue on much as before.”

As for the people who dedicate their lives to the scientific process, Comfort said: “Academics would debate questions of human identity afresh … in short, it might throw an existential monkey wrench into the works, but the principles of moral behaviour would remain the same.”

The probability of panspermia

The idea that life came from Mars is a highly-debated topic. Both Comfort and Billings agree that the possibility is unlikely. “It seems to me extremely unlikely that life on Earth came from Mars (or anywhere else),” Comfort said. “The logic and data I find most persuasive dismisses the idea of life coming from a ‘seed’ at all, whether terrestrial or not.”

Yet, other scientists, like Steven Benner – who’s a chemist and one of the world’s leading experts on the origins of life – argue otherwise. In 2013, Benner said during a talk at the Goldschmidt conference for geochemists that Mars might have been a better place for life to begin than Earth. That’s because ancient Martian meteorites contain more boron and molybdenum – important precursors to the formation of RNA – than early Earth.

Moreover, Christopher Adcock and Elizabeth Hausrath, both researchers at the University of Nevada in 2013, discovered that phosphates – another important chemical in the formation of RNA, DNA, and essential proteins – in Martian meteorites are more water-soluble than those on early Earth. And since life is suspected to have begun in the presence of water, their research suggests that Mars could have formed life more readily than Earth.

However, studying Martian meteorites for signs of life has been ongoing for over two decades without success. Perhaps the only way to know for sure if we are the true aliens is to head to Mars ourselves and dig up the potential proof.

WATCH: Uranium emits radiation inside a cloud chamber

Ever wondered what radiation looks like? If you have, I bet you didn’t think it would look as cool as this. This is a small piece of uranium mineral sitting in a cloud chamber, which means you can see the process of decay and radiation emission.

So, what’s a cloud chamber? It’s a sealed glass container cooled to -40°C, topped with a layer of liquid alcohol. According to Cloudylabs on YouTube, who made the video above, vapour emitted from the alcohol fills the container below, and most of it condenses on the glass surface, but some of it will remain as a vapour above the cold condenser.

“This creates a layer of unstable sursaturated vapour which can condense at any moment,” says Cloudylabs. “When a charged particle crosses this vapour, it can knock electrons off the molecules forming ions. It causes the unstable alcohol vapour to condense around ions left behind by the travelling ionising particle. The path of the particle in the matter is then revealed by a track composed of thousands droplets of alcohol.”

Using this equipment, you can visualise any charged particle, including alphas, electrons, positrons, protons, nuclear charged fragments, and muons, and their tracks will look different, depending on how fast they travel, how much mass they have, and their charge.

Cloudylabs explains what you can see in the video.URL:

“This video shows the Cloudylabs’s cloud chamber running for approx. 50 min with an Uranium mineral. After 40 min, there is not enough alcohol to make newer trails. With time, the alcohol [will] condense on the mineral. The small thickness of liquid alcohol on the mineral is enough to absorb a part of the energy of the alpha particles (their ranges in air for 5 MeV is 3-4 cm, but in water, it’s 15 micrometres), so with time, the trails are shorter than in [the] beginning. It’s preferable to make such experience during 10 minutes to have longer alpha track.”

Esther Inglis-Arkell over at io9 has a really great rundown of how you can actually do something similar to this yourself using nothing by party supplies. And nope, no uranium required.

Meet the animal that may never die

Is there a creature that can defeat death? Yes, says new research that confirmed that the tiny hydra –  a centimetre-long polyp that inhabits fresh water all over the world – does not age and, if kept in ideal conditions, may just live forever.

Hydra could live in ideal conditions without showing any sign of senescence – the increase in mortality and decline in fertility with age after maturity, which was thought to be inevitable for all multicellular species, the findings showed.

“I do believe that an individual hydra can live forever under the right circumstances,” said one of the researchers Daniel Martinez, professor at Pomona College in Claremont, US.
“I started my original experiment wanting to prove that hydra could not have escaped aging. My own data has proven me wrong – twice,”  Martinez noted.

Hydra could live in ideal conditions without showing any sign of senescence - the increase in mortality and decline in fertility with age after maturity, which was thought to be inevitable for all multicellular species, the findings showed. File photo for representational purpose

He, however, said that the chances of a hydra living forever are low because they are exposed to the normal dangers of the wild — predation, contamination, diseases.
Working with James Vaupel of the Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research (MPIDR) in Rostock, Germany, Martinez  duplicated earlier findings regarding hydra immortality, but on a much larger scale.

That scale, Martinez said, is key to the study’s significance, along with the fact that the hydra showed constant fertility over time, defying expectations for most organisms.
For the project, each hydra was kept in its own dish and had to be individually fed three times a week with freshly hatched brine shrimp.

The man-made freshwater in which the hydra lived needed to be changed three times a week.

“Many, many hours of work went into this experiment,” Martinez said. “I am hoping this work helps sparks another scientist to take a deeper look at immortality, perhaps in some other organism that helps bring more light to the mysteries of aging,” he said.

But why is this tiny organism able to carry on living while humans have to continue their search for the mythical fountain of youth?

Explaining why hydras can carry on living without ageing while humans have to continue their search for the mythical fountain of youth, Martinez said that these tiny organisms are made of stem cells.

“Most of the hydra’s body is made of stem cells with very few fully differentiated cells. Stem cells have the ability to continually divide, and so a hydra’s body is being constantly renewed,” Martinez noted.

“The differentiated cells of the tentacles and the foot are constantly being pushed off the body and replaced with new cells migrating from the body column,” he explained.

Do you share more genes with your mother or your father?

You might look more like your dad, but you’re more related to your mum.

Many of your relatives probably have an answer to the question of whether you are more your mother or your father’s child. But the correct answer to the question is not as simple as it might seem. Genetically, you actually carry more of your mother’s genes than your father’s. That’s because of little organelles that live within your cells, the mitochondria, which you only receive from your mother.

Mitochondria are the energy-producing factories of the cell; without them, a cell would not be able to generate energy from food.

Mitochondria have an interesting history, as about 1.5-billion to 2-billion years ago they were free-living organisms. The ancestor of all mitochondria was a bacterium that was engulfed by another bacterium, but for one reason or another not digested, giving rise to the eukaryotes. The eukaryotes are basically all plants, animals and fungi, plus some rather weird organisms grouped together under Protista.

Because of their evolutionary history as free-living bacteria, mitochondria have retained their own genome, called mitochondrial DNA, or mtDNA. Each cell contains many copies of mtDNA, as mitochondria freely replicate within the cell.

The mother effect

Tissues that require a lot of energy, such as your brain and your muscles, have cells packed with mitochondria. Because all mitochondria you received come from your mother only, you are technically more related to your mum than you are to your dad. This is true for pretty much all animals. In plants and fungi too, mitochondria come from one parent only, although not necessarily from the mother.

Why do we have two different kinds of inheritance, one for nuclear genomes (nDNA) that combine parts of the mother and the father, and one for mitochondrial genomes, that excludes one parent completely? The reason behind the evolution of so-called uniparental inheritance has long been a mystery among evolutionary biologists. One thing was clear: it better be for a good reason.

Mammalian males go through the bother of actually tagging the mitochondria in their sperm so that it is easier to destroy them after the egg has been fertilised. In plants too, the mitochondria from one parent are actively destroyed, this time before fertilisation takes place.

For decades the prevailing theory explaining why mitochondria inherit uniparentally was the ‘conflict theory’. The idea is that mtDNA replicates independently within the cell, so the number of copies increases over time. And the more copies there are, the more likely some will be transmitted to the daughter cell when that cell divides.

If all mtDNA comes from one parent only, then mtDNA within a cell are closely related to each other, as they are all clones. Hence, there is not much scope for competition, as copies of the mitochondrial genomes are basically competing with exact copies of themselves.

Unhealthy competition

But imagine what could happen if organelles were derived from both parents, the four grandparents, and so on ad infinitum. This would set the scene for a genetically variable population of organelles in every cell. And this could be bad news as now different clonal lineages of mtDNA are competing with each other. The faster mtDNA replicates, the more copies it produces and the more likely it will spread to the next generation of cells.

Ultimately, the slower reproducing organelle lineage will be eliminated from the cell lineage. The smaller an organelle’s genome, the faster it can replicate. Thus, competition among organelles within cells selects for smaller genomes.

At some stage genomes will be so small that the function of the organelle is affected. Remember that the mitochondria produce the energy the cell needs, so when their genome size becomes very small, the organelles cease to function properly and the host cell suffers. Interesting idea. But what is the evidence? Sadly, none.

Cleaning the mix

Recently a much simpler explanation was proposed: what if the simple mixing of mitochondrial lineages within the same cell is for some reason costly in itself? This very simple assumption actually nicely explains the peculiar inheritance of mitochondria in theoretical models.

But there is more. Mice that were experimentally constructed so that individuals carried two mitochondrial lineages were less active, ate less, were more stressed and were cognitively impaired. It seems carrying mitochondria from both your parents is bad for you.

So why is the question of whether you are more like your mum or dad so hard to answer? Because your genetic make-up is only part of the equation. Which genes are expressed is the other part. And apparently your dad has the upper hand when it comes to which genes are expressed.

So, you may look more like your dad but are more related to your mum after all. How’s that for a simple answer?

Here’s how checking your phone could be ruining both your body and your mind

Scientists are still figuring out the potential downsides of having the miniature computers known as smartphones forever in our pockets, but the research so far suggests that these devices are having a long-term detrimental effect on both our posture and mood.

The trouble is that looking at a phone usually requires hunching over and looking down, unless you regularly hold your phone at eye level. This means we’re putting around 27 kg (60 pounds) of extra strain on our neck. As it so happens, researchers have found that the posture we adopt when looking at our phones is similar to the posture that people suffering from depression adopt. It can be difficult to tell the difference between the people who are miserable and staring at their feet and those who are simply flicking through Twitter.

As Amy Cuddy at The New York Times notes, posture can cause negative emotional states as well as reflect them. A study published earlier this year found that when people were forced to slouch, it had a negative effect on mood and self-esteem. Another report showed that slouching can cause some memory loss, whereas sitting up straight helps us retain more information – another good reason to aim for the correct posture.

What’s more, a quick test by Cuddy and one of her colleagues at Harvard University found that people using smaller devices – those who have to slouch over more – became less assertive. This all points to the damaging effect that smartphone use can have, both on the pressure on our bodies and the mental consequences that go along with that.

“Ironically, while many of us spend hours every day using small mobile devices to increase our productivity and efficiency, interacting with these objects, even for short periods of time, might do just the opposite, reducing our assertiveness and undermining our productivity,” writes Cuddy. “Your physical posture sculpts your psychological posture, and could be the key to a happier mood and greater self-confidence.”

She suggests avoiding the practice of hunching over smaller screens where we can, and using larger devices whenever possible. It’s also a good idea to regularly run through a series of exercises that stretch the back, shoulder, and neck muscles.

Scientists are still exploring the long-term effects of smartphone use – remember that the iPhone didn’t launch until 2007 – but there’s already plenty of evidence that these little boxes of tricks have potential health risks as well as many benefits. Perhaps we’ll have to wait for augmented reality glasses to hit the mainstream before we can save the strain on our necks and shoulders.

Marijuana found to heal bone fractures and aid in treatment of osteoporosis!

A Gallup poll suggests that the 58 percent of Americans believe that marijuana should be legal for recreational use.(1) Cannabis was a go-to medical remedy by societies around the world for centuries but was banned in most countries in the 1930’s and 40’s due to the dangers of addiction.


Fifty-eight percent of Americans believe that marijuana should be legal for recreational use!

In the 1970’s, the US Congress place marijuana in Schedule I of the Controlled Substances Act and said that it had “no accepted medical use.”  Since then, 23 of 50 states and DC have legalized medical marijuana use.  (3)

Marijuana has been found safe and effective in treating the symptoms of cancer, AIDS, multiple sclerosis, pain, glaucoma, epilepsy and other medical conditions. (3)

Marijuana has been found effective in treating symptoms of cancer, AIDS, multiple sclerosis, pain, glaucoma, and epilepsy!

A new study by Tel Aviv University and Hebrew University found a promising new medical application for marijuana.  They found that the non-psychotropic component, cannabinoid cannabidiol (CBD) significantly helps to heal bone fractures.  The study found that CBD enhanced the healing process of mid-femoral fracture in just eight weeks. (2)

New study finds that cannabinoid cannabidiol (CBD) is effective in healing bone fractures due to it’s ability to stimulate bone formation and inhibiting bone loss.

The same team of researchers found that cannabinoid receptors within the body stimulate bone formation and inhibit bone loss.  This may pave the way for cannabinoid drugs to be used for patients with osteoporosis or other bone related diseases. (2)

The study concluded that “CBD makes bones stronger during healing, enhancing the maturation of collagenous matrix, which provides the basis for new mineralization of bone tissue.”  After CBD treatment “the healed bone will be harder to break in the future.”(2)

In the future, CBD may be part of treatment for minor fractures, bone diseases and even osteoporosis!

6 Party Drugs That May Have Medical Benefits

The use of illegal drugs for medicinal reasons is a controversial topic, even as more states and jurisdictions allow the use of medical marijuana and other substances every year.

And self-medicating — using drugs without the assistance of a doctor or other medical professional — can be dangerous. “Potential risks of self-medication practices include incorrect self-diagnosis, delays in seeking medical advice … incorrect dosage, incorrect choice of therapy, masking of a severe disease, and risk of dependence and abuse,” wrote the authors of a 2010 article published in the journal Current Drug Safety.

Because of these risks, doctors strongly advise against the unregulated use of illicit drugs, which can do more harm than good. Nonetheless, medical researchers continue to find a surprising number of health benefits in drugs widely used for recreational purposes.

Magic Mushrooms: Mushrooms containing psilocybin produce colorful hallucinations, even when consumed in small quantities. There’s also some evidence that small amounts of psilocybin can relieve the symptoms of cluster headaches, obsessive-compulsive disorder and depression.

Research published in the British Journal of Psychiatry in 2012 found that volunteers taking psilocybin had enhanced recall, making the substance an effective adjunct to psychotherapy. Another 2012 study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, found that the drug slowed activity in the centers of the brain that are hyperactive in people with depression.

“We’re not saying go out there and eat magic mushrooms,” Robin Carhart Harris, lead author of both studies, told Reuters. “But … this drug has such a fundamental impact on the brain that it’s got to be meaningful. It’s got to be telling us something about how the brain works. So we should be studying it and optimizing it if there’s a therapeutic benefit.”

Ecstasy: Also known as MDMA, ecstasy is a synthetic compound that produces hallucinations, feelings of emotional warmth and high levels of energy. The same psychoactive properties that make ecstasy so popular with partygoers may also make it useful in treating post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD.

Other research has found that ecstasy has robust anticancer properties, particularly for leukemia, lymphoma and myeloma. In 2011, researchers from the University of Birmingham found that a slightly modified form of ecstasy was 100 times more potent at destroying cancer cells than the original form of MDMA. “Further work is required, but this research is a significant step forward in developing a potential new cancer drug,” the researchers said in a statement.

Cocaine: Leaves of the coca plant (Erythroxylum coca) have been used as a stimulant in South America for thousands of years. The drug derived from coca, cocaine — popularly known as coke, blow or Bolivian marching powder — has been credited with a range of health benefits.

Cocaine can be used as a topical anesthetic for surgical procedures due to its rapid-acting numbing properties. When combined with other compounds into a preparation called TAC, cocaine can also treat minor skin lacerations, since the drug is an effective vasoconstrictor (narrows blood vessels).

Dr. Andrew Weil, founder and director of the Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine, has studied coca’s gastrointestinal effects among South American communities. “If you look carefully at the coca leaf’s molecular array, you find 14 bioactive alkaloids … while cocaine acts as a gut stimulant, other coca alkaloids can have precisely the opposite action. They inhibit gut activity,” Weil wrote in the Huffington Post.

“During my time in Andean Indian communities, I collected many reports about whole coca’s paradoxical, normalizing effect on bowel function, and experienced it firsthand, as well,” he wrote.

LSD: Lysergic acid diethylamide, usually known as LSD or acid, is a hallucinogen that’s been widely used for decades, but recent research finds it has some potential for treating alcoholism. A study from Norway, published in 2012 in the Journal of Psychopharmacology, suggests that LSD prevented alcoholics from relapsing during treatment.

“LSD worked in an entirely different way than any current psychiatric drugs,” said study author Teri Krebs of the Norwegian University of Science and Technology. “Many patients said they had gained a new appreciation for their alcohol problem and new motivation to address it.” [Slideshow: Scientists Analyze Drawings by an Acid-Tripping Artist]

Ketamine: Also called “Special K,” this animal tranquilizer is sometimes used as a recreational drug by attendees at dance raves and other events. The drug may also effectively combat the symptoms of depression.

A 2012 study from the journal Science found that ketamine may help stimulate the growth of synapses in the brain, and beneficial effects of the drug on people with chronic depression can occur within hours. “The rapid therapeutic response of ketamine in treatment-resistant patients is the biggest breakthrough in depression research in a half century,” Ronald Duman, professor of psychiatry and neurobiology at Yale University, said in a statement.

Marijuana: Pot, in addition to being the most widely used illicit drug in the United States, has a raft of medical benefits. According to NORML (a marijuana advocacy group), 21 states and the District of Columbia allow some use of medical marijuana.

The drug has been shown through years of scientific research to relieve chronic pain, prevent PTSD, stimulate appetite for people with AIDS wasting syndrome, control nausea, relieve intra-ocular pressure associated with glaucoma, treat opioid dependence and improve the symptoms of Crohn’s disease.