Every once in a while, a rock manages to excite lay people as much as it excites geologists. There’s another such rock in our midst. A meteorite of Martian origin, previously recovered by scientists in Antarctica, has just been found to hold boron, a chemical that biochemists suspect played a key role in the development of RNA. And RNA is thought to have been an essential step in life’s genesis on Earth.
RNA, short for ribonucleic acid, is one of the two types of nucleic acids found in all cells. The other is deoxyribonucleic acid, commonly known as DNA. RNA transmits genetic information from DNA to proteins produced by the cell, making it one of the vital pieces of cellular life. But beyond this role, RNA is thought to have played an essential role in early life on Earth. RNA likely appeared first, giving rise to the DNA that became the first living thing.
There are three main components that make up RNA: there’s a phosphate; a ribose, a five-carbon sugar central to a cell’s metabolism; and a nucleobase. Both phosphates and nucleobases have been found in meteorites previously, but ribose has never been found beyond Earth. Which makes it the tricky bit. Scientist have yet to explain just how it could have appeared naturally.
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