Feeds

New evidence: Comets seeded life on Earth

Simulated cosmic snowball breeds complex organics

High performance access to file storage

Ever since its formation, the Earth has been bombarded by comets, and scientists think they now have evidence that these cosmic missiles could have carried the building blocks for life along with them when they impacted.

In 2009, NASA's Stardust mission rendezvoused with the comet Wild-2 and returned to Earth with a sample of an amino acid the probe had picked up from comet's outgassing. Tests showed it had too much carbon-13 to have come from Earth, but skepticism remains that simple amino acids could have kick-started the development of life on the planet.

To test that hypothesis, a team of scientists at the University of California, Berkeley, and the University of Hawaii, Manoa, built a pseudo-comet in the lab – a snowball of carbon dioxide, ammonia, and various hydrocarbons such as methane, ethane, and propane – then chilled it in an ultra-high-vacuum chamber down to 10 degrees above absolute zero.

The comet was then zapped with high-energy electrons to simulate the cosmic rays it would encounter had it travelled through space. The team then analyzed the result to see what had formed using the Mars Organic Analyzer, an instrument designed for ultrasensitive detection and identification of small organic molecules in the Solar System.

On analysis, the laboratory comet was found to have not only nine different amino acids but also at least two dipeptides – linked pairs of amino acids that are capable of forming proteins (polypeptides), enzymes, and more-complex molecules such as sugars.

"It is fascinating to consider that the most basic biochemical building blocks that led to life on Earth may well have had an extraterrestrial origin," said UC Berkeley chemist Richard Mathies, coauthor of the paper to be published in The Astrophysical Journal, in a statement.

Previous scientific theories have largely revolved around the famous 1953 Miller-Urey experiment, in which simulated lightning was fired into a primordial soup of water, methane, ammonia, and hydrogen. This produced over 20 amino acids, and further research in the area is continuing.

Of course there are still plenty of people – particularly here in the US – who will tell you that humans were created by a supernatural deity (who curiously burdened humans with such useless organs as the appendix and men's nipples) and therefor such scientific research is pointless.

But for scientists, the news is rather exciting. ®

High performance access to file storage

More from The Register

next story
IBM Hursley Park: Where Big Blue buries the past, polishes family jewels
How the internet of things has deep roots in the English countryside
Video games make you NASTY AND VIOLENT
Especially if you are bad at them and keep losing
Russian deputy PM: 'We are coming to the Moon FOREVER'
Plans to annex Earth's satellite with permanent base by 2030
Solar-powered aircraft unveiled for round-the-world flight
It's going to be a slow and sleepy flight for the pilots
LOHAN's Punch and Judy show relaunches Thursday
Weather looking good for second pop at test flights
Honeybee boffin STINGS OWN WEDDING TACKLE... for SCIENCE
Not the worst place to be stung, says one man
India's GPS alternative launches second satellite
Closed satnav system due to have all seven birds aloft by 2016
Curiosity finds not-very-Australian-shaped rock on Mars
File under 'messianic pastries' and move on, people
prev story

Whitepapers

Mainstay ROI - Does application security pay?
In this whitepaper learn how you and your enterprise might benefit from better software security.
Five 3D headsets to be won!
We were so impressed by the Durovis Dive headset we’ve asked the company to give some away to Reg readers.
3 Big data security analytics techniques
Applying these Big Data security analytics techniques can help you make your business safer by detecting attacks early, before significant damage is done.
The benefits of software based PBX
Why you should break free from your proprietary PBX and how to leverage your existing server hardware.
Mobile application security study
Download this report to see the alarming realities regarding the sheer number of applications vulnerable to attack, as well as the most common and easily addressable vulnerability errors.