It's no E.T., but scientists have found a potential building block of life in a Mars meteorite that crash-landed in Antarctica.

The Red Planet's rock contained traces of boron, which scientists say could help explain the formation of ribonucleic acid, or RNA. A key biological molecule, RNA is believed to have been a stepping stone for life during the origins of the earth.

What makes the Mars meteorite so intriguing for scientists is the elusive compound known as ribose, which, unlike RNA's two other components — phosphates and a nucleobase — has never been found beyond Earth.

"Of the three parts that make RNA, the ribose is the tricky part," said James Stephenson, biologist at the NASA Astrobiology Institute at the University of Hawaii (UNHAI). "We haven't been able to explain how it could form naturally."

One of boron's unique properties could help fill in these gaps, scientists say.

"It's the unique size of the boron which is able to stabilize the ribose ring structure," Stephenson added. "No other element has been shown to have that effect."

Stephenson's study of boron comes in the wake of a 2004 paper written by chemist Steven Benner, who works with the Foundation for Applied Molecular Evolution in Gainesville, Fla., and proposed that borate assisted ribose in the ring structure's heavy lifting.

"If one thinks that life originated with RNA that formed pre-biotically, we know of no other way of getting ribose in adequate amounts other than to use borate," Brenner told Discovery News.

Stephenson took this information and ran with it. He and a colleague at UNHAI, post-doctoral fellow and cosmochemist Dr. Lydia Hallis, chose to study the boron levels in meteorites.

"Given that boron has been implicated in the emergence of life, I had assumed that it was well characterized in meteorites," Stephenson said. "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 specialized machinery needed to analyze them were available at UH."

The team had only a strict amount of time to use the highly specialized ion microprobe. Despite working grueling hours, their early efforts were mostly fruitless. The meteorites they had collected back in 2009-2010, as part of an annual trip to Antarctica funded by NASA and the Smithsonian Institution, showed negligible traces of boron.

But suddenly the findings began flooding in.

"We had four days on this very expensive machine and the first 3.5 days we hadn't found any reasonable amounts of boron," Stephenson said. "We tried different meteorites and we tried different places in this Mars meteorite. It was only in the last hours that suddenly the boron concentrations jumped up from 2- to 3 parts per million up to 200 parts per million."

Stephenson's study stands in a long line of terrestrial efforts to uncover the extra-terrestrial. Most recently, the Mars rover Curiosity found traces of life-sustaining compounds, such as sulfur, nitrogen, hydrogen, oxygen, phosphorus, and carbon, researchers said.

The researchers at UNHAI now have plans to study whether Earth clay with the same level and configuration of boron could stabilize ribose.

"It was a surprise for all of us. We were basically thinking of giving up," Stephenson said of the meteorite's findings. "We'd been working like 15-hour days on this machine and not finding anything and we were ready to pack up and leave when we got this result, so then we carried on through the night."

Source: Stephenson J, Hallis L, Nagashima K, Freeland S. Boron Enrichment in Martian Clay. PLoS ONE. 2013.