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Did life on Earth really come from Mars?

A new scientific theory made headlines Thursday — and they’re some headlines.

“Earth life ‘may have come from Mars’” (Via BBC)

“Life On Earth, From Mars? Why We Might All Be Alien Invaders” (Via International Business Times)

And “All humans may be ‘Martians’?” (Via National Post)

The story comes from biochemist Dr. Steven Benner, who gave a talk Thursday at the Goldschmidt Conference in Florence, Italy. (Via Foundation for Applied Molecular EvolutionGeochemical Society)

Benner argues several materials necessary for life to form wouldn’t have been available on Earth 3 billion years ago when life first arose — but there would have been plenty of them on Mars.

But is this just another wild theory meant to generate publicity? Well, that depends on who you ask. (Via Vanity Fair)

Benner has his supporters, such as prominent biologist Richard Dawkins, who said the idea is “not totally silly.” That’s some high praise.

And NBC science writer Alan Boyle said: “One thing’s for sure: Benner is not a kook. He was one of the first chemists to voice skepticism about the claims for arsenic-based life, which stirred up such a fuss in 2010.”

Even Benner’s critics say he does great work and that his ideas are plausible.

More than 100 meteorites found on Earth have been traced to Mars, most likely thrown into space by an asteroid strike. (Via NASA)

 And it’s long been thought certain hardy microbes could actually survive for a while in the vacuum of space. (Via National Science Foundation)

 So the critics admit much of what Benner says is possible, but they do take issue with the sensationalist press release.

 Scientific American’s Caleb Scharf points out Benner’s explanation for how life arose is just one of many possible theories — and most others don’t require material from Mars.

 Astrobiologist David Grinspoon says so much about the origin of life is still up in the air, it’s just as likely Earth was seeded by life from Venus as from Mars.

 So at this point, the answer to the question “Are we all Martians?” is a not-so-sensational “maybe” — although it does make for a good headline.

See more at Newsy.com

Scientists build tiny human brains in the lab

For the first time, scientists have grown miniature human brains in a lab — pea-sized models that could hold the key to understanding developmental disorders like autism.

The scientists took skin cells, turned them into stem cells, then grew them into tiny versions of human brains, complete with some basic brain organization and structure. (Via New Scientist)

They call them “organoids,” lab-grown clumps of cells that are almost organs, but not quite. And these neural organoids are the closest thing to a functioning human brain ever grown in the lab. (Via Nature)

The researchers say these mini brains are roughly equivalent to the brain of a 9-week-old fetus.

One of them even developed retinal tissue, which in a normal brain would go on to form part of the eye. (Via LiveScience)

But the researchers aren’t just trying to build a brain in a jar. The mini brains don’t think or feel or have anything like a neural network. That’s because the goal, according to one researcher, is to understand the brain, not rebuild it.

“What’s important here is that we’re trying to understand how the cells behave during development — not that we’re trying to recreate organs or large fragments of tissue.” (Via BBC)

In fact, they’ve already helped scientists understand at least one disorder.

Microcephaly is a condition when the brain and head are smaller than normal. A writer for The Scientist explains how the researchers studied the disorder in one Scottish patient. (Via Wikipedia

“They took skin cells from the patient, reprogrammed them into a stem-like state, and used them to grow organoids that ended up much smaller than usual. By dissecting the organoids, the team discovered the reason for this stunted size.” (Via The Scientist)

Basically, an important step in brain development came too early, brought on by a mutation in a particular gene. Scientists can now use the same techniques to study the effects of other mutations.

And eventually, if the teams can grow somewhat larger brains, they may be able to study the causes of the more common disorders schizophrenia and autism. (Via MIT Technology Review)

See more at Newsy.com

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