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IS THIS THE PROOF OF LIFE ON MARS?; Discovery by British scientist may hold key.

THEY are tiny little wisps of life just 100,000th of a millimetre wide - but they may finally prove there is life on Mars.

The ultra-microscopic lifeforms are thought to have lain dormant deep below the sea bed for millions of years.

They were spotted when sandstone rock samples brought to the surface by scientists were cracked open and examined under a powerful microscope.

The discovery of the smallest-ever form of life on this planet was amazing enough - but what got scientists really excited was their similarity to minute fossil-like formations found in a Martian meteorite recovered from the Antartic.

Some experts believe the same tiny living organisms - called nanobes - could be lurking below the surface of every rocky planet in our solar system.

The woman who has sparked the latest scientific furore is Edinburgh University-educated Philippa Uwins.

The 38-year-old geologist, who was born in the Yemen while her father was serving as a captain in the British Army, was working off the coast of Western Australia when she made the incredible discovery.

The rocks were brought from three miles under the sea bed where they had spent millions of years in temperatures of up to 170C.

After breaking open the sandstone samples, Dr Uwins and her colleagues from the University of Queensland noticed strange growths appearing on the rocks.

As they watched, these quickly spread to lab equipment and containers where the mystery substance colonised a fingerprint, apparently feeding on it.

Examination under one of the world's most powerful electron microscopes revealed the tiny, irregular-shaped filaments, which appeared to be growing and moving.

Dr Uwins and her team have spent the last two and a half years studying the nanobes, since the initial discovery in 1996.

They have eliminated all other possibilities and are convinced that they are, in fact, living organisms.

That view has been supported by positive results from initial DNA, protein and chemical composition tests.

Dr Uwins believes that having lain dormant for so long, the tiny organisms burst into life on contact with air.

But she added: "We still don't really know where they came from."

Now the debate has started about possible links with Martian life.

Nasa's 1996 discovery of tiny fossils in the Antartic meteorite was originally hailed as proof of life on Mars.

And a second Martian mereorite which fell to earth in Egypt in 1911 has now been examined and it is thought to show the same fossil-like formations.

Critics had their doubts and said there was no proof it had been left by a living organism.

But Dr Uwins' report on her find, published in the American Mineralogist journal, is forcing them to think again.

Professor Paul Davies, one of world's foremost astrophysicists and philosophers on the origins of life, was excited by her findings, but warned that further work was needed.

He said: "The study of subterranean organisms is in its infancy and many surprises may lay in store.

"The work done by Dr Uwins' team is certainly fascinating. If they are right, it would be one of the most significant scientific discoveries of our time.

"There must be transitional stages to life and nanobes might cast light on those.

"The smaller a living organism can be, the easier it is for such a thing to form by chance. And the implications of that are literally cosmic.

"Perhaps our understanding of the nature of life is about to get a massive shake-up.

"If so, it could have profound consequences for the big mystery of how life began in the first place."

But Professor Davies added: "It is precisely because there is so much riding on this that I urge caution.

"Dr Uwins' discovery must be subjected to the most rigorous scrutiny before we rush to proclaim a scientific revolution."
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Author:Page, Cara
Publication:Daily Record (Glasgow, Scotland)
Date:Mar 20, 1999
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