Building blocks of life found on ancient meteorites

Olive Hawkins
January 13, 2018

"The salt crystals, which show a similar colour to blue sapphire", explains Chan.

Around 20 years after the two meteorites - Zag and Monahans - plummeted to Earth, landing in Texas and Morocco, laboratory equipment is powerful enough to scrutinize blue salt crystals on the meteorites, according to The Open University. "It's like a fly in amber", David Kilcoyne, a scientist at Berkeley Lab's Advanced Light Source, a Department of Energy facility that took part in the research, said in a press release. Kilcoyne was part of the global research team that prepared the study.

Now, a comprehensive chemical analysis of the two meteorites suggests their organic matter could come from an ancient ocean world, giving them the potential to kickstart life wherever they land.

An worldwide team, including scientists from the Open University (OU) in the United Kingdom and Nasa Johnson Space Centre in Texas, found amino acids - which form the basis of proteins, hydrocarbons - organic compounds made up of hydrogen and carbon, and liquid water - the most important ingredient required to support life, within the salt crystals.

Although we don't know the full recipe, the key ingredients of life include liquid water and a host of organic compounds like amino acids.

Further, the study raises a possibility of encapsulating life or similar bio-molecules inside their salt-like crystals. They date from 4.5 billion years ago, around the earliest days of our solar system. Similarities of the crystals found in the meteorites are also structural clues the two might have collided with each other and mixed fragments and materials.

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Scientists believe that this discovery leads to the conclusion that the origin of life is possible elsewhere. "There is a great range of organic compounds within these meteorites, including a very primitive type of organics that likely represent the early solar system's organic composition".

The meteorite crash yielded 2-millimetre-sized salt crystals, which contain organic solids and water traces measure just a fraction of the width of a human hair. Chan meticulously collected these crystals in a dust-controlled room, splitting off tiny sample fragments with metal instruments resembling dental picks.

Yoko Kebukawa, an associate professor of engineering at Yokohama National University in Japan, carried out experiments for the study at Berkeley Lab's ALS in May 2016 with Aiko Nakato, a postdoctoral researcher at Kyoto University in Japan.

The team used numerous evolved techniques to carefully analyze the microscopic salt crystals inside the rocks which provided an in-depth study of the organic chemistry dominating the rocks.

They hint at elements for life having existed way back in history, they can teach us more about how colliding objects in space share organic matter, and they're evidence of how the seeds of life on one planet can find their way to another.

Dr Chan said: "We believe that the salt may have originated in Ceres or some other carbon-rich asteroid body, while the meteorites come from a different parent body - one that has been heated to 950C so any trace of liquid water present in it would have gone".

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