Scarborough scientist makes Martian find

Scarborough scientist James Stephenson
Scarborough scientist James Stephenson

A Scarborough scientist is at the centre of a major discovery in the quest for life on Mars after leading a team of experts to a revolutionary find.

Former Scarborough College pupil James Stephenson is now an astrobiologist working for NASA at its astrobiology institute in Hawaii.

Following a recent piece of research into some Martian 
clay Dr Stephenson and his team have hit international headlines after discovering high concentrations of what could form the building blocks of life.

The astrobiologists found the clay, obtained from a meteorite found in Antarctica, contained a chemical called boron.

When in its oxidized form boron is known as borate, which may have played a key role in the formation of RNA – the precursor to DNA.

Using an ion microprobe at the University of Hawaii, Dr Stephenson and his team determined boron abundances in the clay were more than ten times higher than any previously measured meteorite.

Dr Stephenson, who’s parents have been watching his named appear on news channels across the world from their home in Cayton, said: “Borates may have been important for the origin of life on Earth because they can stabilise ribose, a crucial component of RNA.

“In early life RNA is thought to have been the informational precursor to DNA.”

Dr Stephenson and his colleague Lydia Hallis came up with the idea to explore the potential for boron over a beer after work.

The former Wheatcroft School pupil said: “Given that boron has been implicated in the emergence of life, I had assumed that it was well characterised in meteorites.

“Discussing this with Dr Hallis, I found out that it was barely studied. I was shocked and excited.

“She then informed me that both the samples and the specialised machinery needed to analyse them were available at the University.

“On our planet, borate-enriched salt, sediment and clay deposits are relatively common, but such deposits had never previously been found on an extraterrestrial body.

“This new research suggests that when life was getting started on Earth, borate could also have been concentrated in deposits on Mars.

The significance goes beyond an interest in the red planet, says Dr Hallis, a cosmochemist.

She said: “Earth and Mars used to have much more in common than they do today. Over time, Mars has lost a lot of its atmosphere and surface water, but ancient meteorites preserve delicate clays from wetter periods in Mars’ history.

“The Martian clay we studied is thought to be up to 700 million years old.

“The recycling of the Earth’s crust via plate tectonics has left no evidence of clays this old on our planet; hence Martian clays could provide essential information regarding environmental conditions on the early Earth.”

Dr Stephenson moved to Hawaii in 2001 after finishing a PhD at Cambridge.

His day to day job consists of investigating how life started on this planet and searching for clues about whether life exists elsewhere in the solar system.

Dr Stephenson’s mum Julia Stephenson said: “James’ dad and I are obviously really proud of him. It has been fantastic to read all about him and his work, and to see the story covered all over the world.”