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Life's Building Blocks Found on Surprising Meteorite

Asteroid Collision

A Hubble Space Telescope picture of a comet-like object called P/2010 A2 shows a bizarre X-pattern of filamentary structures near the point-like nucleus of the object and trailing streamers of dust. Scientists think the object is the remnant of an asteroid collision. (NASA, ESA, and D. Jewitt (UCLA))

Scientists have discovered amino acids, the building blocks of life in a meteorite where none were expected.

The finding adds evidence to the idea that some of life's key ingredients could have formed in space, and then been delivered to Earth long ago by meteorite impacts.

The meteorite in question was born in a violent crash, and eventually crashed into northern Sudan. [Meteorite craters on Earth]

"This meteorite formed when two asteroids collided," said Daniel Glavin of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. "The shock of the collision heated it to more than 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit [1,093 degrees Celsius], hot enough that all complex organic molecules like amino acids should have been destroyed, but we found them anyway."

Amino acids are the molecules used to build the proteins that are essential to life.

"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," Glavin said in a statement.

The proteins created from amino acids are 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.

In previous missions, scientists found amino acids in samples of Comet Wild 2, 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.

But when Peter Jenniskens of the SETI Institute in Mountain View, Calif., and NASA's Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, Calif., approached NASA with the suggestion to search for amino acids in the carbon-rich remnants of asteroid 2008 TC3, most scientists expected none to be found.

Because of an unusually violent collision in the past, this asteroid's amino acids were scrambled and now mostly in the form of graphite.

A meteorite sample was divided between the Goddard lab and a lab at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California, San Diego.

"Our analyses confirm those obtained at Goddard," said Jeffrey Bada of Scripps, who led the study there. The extremely sensitive equipment in both labs detected small amounts of 19 different amino acids in the sample, ranging from 0.5 to 149 parts per billion.

The team had to be sure that the amino acids in the meteorite didn't come from contamination on Earth, and they were able to do so because of the way amino acids are made. Amino acid molecules can be built in two ways that are mirror images of each other, like your hands. Life on Earth uses left-handed amino acids, and they are never mixed with right-handed ones, but the amino acids found in the meteorite had equal amounts of the left and right-handed varieties.

The sample had various minerals that only form under high temperatures, indicating it was forged in a violent collision. It's possible that the amino acids are simply leftovers from one of the original asteroids in the collision — an asteroid that had better conditions for amino acid formation.

Jennifer Blank of SETI has done experiments with amino acids in water and ice, showing they survive pressures and temperatures comparable to a low-angle comet-Earth impact or asteroid-asteroid collisions.

However, the team thinks it's unlikely amino acids could have survived the conditions that created the meteorite, which endured higher temperatures — more than 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit (over 1,100 degrees Celsius) — over a much longer period.

"It would be hard to transfer amino acids from an impactor to another body simply because of the high-energy conditions associated with the impact," Bada said.

Instead, the team believes there's an alternate method of creating amino acids in space.

"Previously, we thought the simplest way to make amino acids in an asteroid was at cooler temperatures in the presence of liquid water. This meteorite suggests there's another way involving reactions in gases as a very hot asteroid cools down," Glavin said.

The team is planning experiments to test various gas-phase chemical reactions to see if they generate amino acids.

Fragments of 2008 TC3 are collectively called "Almahata Sitta" or "Station Six" after the train stop in northern Sudan near the location where pieces were recovered. They are prized because they are Ureilites, a rare type of meteorite.

"An interesting possibility is that Ureilites are thought by some researchers to have formed in the solar nebula and thus the findings of amino acids in Almahata Sitta might imply that amino acids were in fact synthesized very early in the history of the solar system," Bada said.

The study is detailed in the Dec. 15 edition of the journal Meteoritics and Planetary Science.

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