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Ancient "ocean world" may have seeded meteorites with life's ingredients

12 January 2018

Liquid water and other organic compounds essential for life have been discovered on ancient meteorites that fell to Earth nearly 20 years ago.

Halite salt crystals from the Monahan and Zag meteorites that landed on Earth some 20 years ago both contained organic matter like liquid water, hydrocarbons, and amino acids.

Lead author Dr Queenie Chan, a postdoctoral researcher at OU, said: 'We collected the tiny salt crystals from the meteorites and dissolved them in water so that we could extract the amino acids and separate any organic compounds to analyse them.

Dr Chan added: 'Each salt crystal, which is about two millimetres in size and the colour of a blue sapphire, is essentially a little package full of organic compounds and the necessary building blocks of life.

But if life did exist in some form in the early solar system, these salt crystal-containing meteorites raise the possibility of trapping life or biomolecules within their salt crystals, she said. The detailed analysis of the chemical structure of the minuscule purple and blue salt crystals, taken from the meteorites provided certain evidence for the past interactions of the meteor along with the point of origin. These organic compounds make up an essential part of life on Earth.

"Everything leads to the conclusion that the origin of life is really possible elsewhere".

These include Ceres, a brown dwarf planet that is the largest object in the asteroid belt, and the asteroid Hebe, a major source of meteorites that fall on Earth. One of the meteorites hit Earth near a children's basketball game in Texas in March 1998 while the other hit near Morocco in August in the same year.

The researchers are still left with a lot more samples to be studied to obtain an accurate answer to the presence of life in the endless space.

Using spectrometers and ion beams, scientists could look at the molecular composition of salt crystals found in the meteorites.

The required technology was not yet available at the time when the meteors were discovered.

It's worth noting that the research that was undertaken in order to produce these findings took place in NASA's Johnson Space Center, in what is widely believed to be the cleanest laboratory in the world, thanks to the need to ensure that Earth microbes don't infect scientific experiments that are sent out into space.

"The asteroidal parent body, potentially asteroid 1 Ceres, shows evidence for a complex combination of biologically and prebiologically relevant molecules", says the study published in Science Advances.