Building blocks of life created in ‘Impossible’ place

NASA-funded scientists have discovered amino acids, a fundamental building block of life, in a meteorite where none were expected.

“This meteorite formed when two asteroids collided,” said Dr. Daniel Glavin of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md. “The shock of the collision heated it to more than 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit, hot enough that all complex organic molecules like amino acids should have been destroyed, but we found them anyway.” Glavin is lead author of a paper on this discovery appearing December 15 in Meteoritics and Planetary Science. “Finding them in this type of meteorite suggests that there is more than one way to make amino acids in space, which increases the chance for finding life elsewhere in the Universe.”

Amino acids are used to make proteins, the workhorse molecules of life, used in everything from structures like hair to enzymes, the catalysts that speed up or regulate chemical reactions. Just as the 26 letters of the alphabet are arranged in limitless combinations to make words, life uses 20 different amino acids in a huge variety of arrangements to build millions of different proteins. Previously, scientists at the Goddard Astrobiology Analytical Laboratory have found amino acids in samples of comet Wild 2 from NASA’s Stardust mission, and in various carbon-rich meteorites. Finding amino acids in these objects supports the theory that the origin of life got a boost from space — some of life’s ingredients formed in space and were delivered to Earth long ago by meteorite impacts.

When Dr. Peter Jenniskens of the SETI Institute, Mountain View, Calif., and NASA’s Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, Calif., approached NASA with the suggestion to search for amino acids in the carbon-rich remnants of asteroid 2008 TC3, expectations were that nothing was to be found. Because of an unusually violent collision in the past, this asteroid’s ingredients for life were a “culinary disaster” and now mostly in the form of graphite. The small asteroid, estimated at six to fifteen feet across, was the first to be detected in space prior to impact on Earth on October 7, 2008. When Jenniskens and Dr. Muawia Shaddad of the University of Khartoum recovered remnants in the Nubian Desert of northern Sudan, the remnants turned out to be the first Ureilite meteorites found in pristine condition.

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