Thursday, 22 March 2012 00:28

Latest research: comets may yet be the origin of life on Earth


For longer than any of us can remember, science fiction writers have postulated that life on Earth was seeded by comets.  Latest research suggests they may actually be correct.

According to a paper published in the latest edition of ChemPlusChem (iTWire is not a subscriber and is thus relying on the abstract and descriptions from other sources) a recent experiment lays out the possibility that the amino acids which form the foundation of life on Earth may have first been synthesised in comets.

A summary of the findings at PhysOrg suggests that the European authors (based at the Institut de Chimie de Nice and at the Institut d'Astrophysique Spatiale) were able to create an artificial comet and subject it to conditions similar to those of a primordial object rotating about our proto-sun.

Under conditions akin to interplanetary space (-200 deg C and near-total vacuum), the team condensed a variety of compounds generally found in this interplanetary environment (water [H2O], ammonia [NH3] and methanol [CH3OH] molecules) onto a solid piece of magnesium fluoride (MgF2), while subjecting the entire system to ultraviolet radiation. After ten days of such harsh treatment, a few micrograms of artificial organic material were created.

Utilising modern analysis techniques (based mainly on the use of a multi-dimensional gas chromatograph) evidence of 26 amino acids (the basic building blocks of life) was discovered in this artificial comet.  Most importantly, the team also identified six diamino acids; in particular N-(2-aminoethyl)glycine, which is one of the major constituents of the peptide nucleic acid molecule; a precursor of modern DNA.

In his youth, this author replicated the Miller-Urey experiment (a very similar experiment into life-forming chemistry) as an entry in a local high school Science Fair in an attempt to suggest purely terrestrial sources of life on Earth (with success within the bounds of the experiment); however the leap from this experiment to actual life was poorly understood.  However, this new experiment outlines a clear path to the actual origins of life.  More than that, it also simplifies the argument for life on other planets.

As well as replicating the result, planned subsequent experiments will investigate the conditions required to take the next steps required to 'create life.'


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David Heath

David Heath has had a long and varied career in the IT industry having worked as a Pre-sales Network Engineer (remember Novell NetWare?), General Manager of IT&T for the TV Shopping Network, as a Technical manager in the Biometrics industry, and as a Technical Trainer and Instructional Designer in the industrial control sector. In all aspects, security has been a driving focus. Throughout his career, David has sought to inform and educate people and has done that through his writings and in more formal educational environments.

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