Dr. David Summers

December 22, 2006

SETI Institute Principal Investigator

To know whether Mars was ever capable of bearing life, nitrogen may be the critical element to consider. All of the other elements central to life on Earth—such as carbon, oxygen, and hydrogen—seem to be present on Mars in sufficient quantities. But nitrogen is notably scarce, perhaps so rare that life as we know it could not have arisen on this otherwise habitable planet. To understand why, David Summers is recreating early Mars in the laboratory.

Working with Bishun Khare, Summers has embarked on an ambitious project to simulate the chemical reactions of Mars’ nitrogen cycle. They focus on the reactions of nitrogen that do not rely on microbial life to “fix” or transform nitrogen into a form usable by more complex organisms. Ultimately, their research will help us understand how the presence or absence of nitrogen may have set the stage for, or inhibited, the origin and evolution of life on Mars.

- SETI Institute Explorer, Special Edition 2005