MessageToEagle.com - Trying to better understand the origin of life on Earth, researchers at NASA's Jet
Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., are creating concoctions of organics, or carbon-bearing molecules, on ice in the lab.
The research team provides the first direct look at the organic chemistry that takes place on icy particles in the
frigid reaches of our solar system, and in the even chillier places between stars.
Scientists think that the basic ingredients of life, including water and organics, began their journey to Earth
on these lonesome ice particles. The ice and organics would have found their way into comets and asteroids,
which then fell to Earth, delivering "prebiotic" ingredients that could have jump-started life.
The various steps needed to go from icy organics to slime molds are not clear, but the new findings help explain
how the process works.
The lab experiments show that organic material can begin the processing it needs to become prebiotic,
while still frozen in ice.
"The very basic steps needed for the evolution of life may have started in the coldest regions of our universe,"
said Murthy Gudipati, lead author of the new study at JPL.
"We were surprised to see organic chemistry brewing up on ice, at these very cold temperatures in our lab."
The organics looked at in the study are called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, or PAHs for short.
These carbon-rich molecules can be found on Earth as combustion products: for example, in barbecue pits, candle
soot and even streaming out of the tail pipe of your car.
They have also been spotted throughout space in comets, asteroids and more distant objects. NASA's Spitzer Space
Telescope has detected PAHs in the swirling planet-forming disks around stars, in the spaces between stars and
in remote galaxies.
Murthy and his colleague Rui Yang of JPL used their lab setup to mimic the environment of icy PAH molecules in
the quiet cold of space, at temperatures as low as 5 Kelvin (minus 450 degrees Fahrenheit, or minus 268 degrees
The results revealed that the PAHs had transformed: they had incorporated hydrogen atoms into their structure and
lost their circular, aromatic bonds, becoming more complex organics.
According to Gudipati, this is the type of change that would need to occur if the material were to eventually
become amino acids and nucleotides -- bits and pieces of protein and DNA, respectively.
"PAHs are strong, stubborn molecules, so we were surprised to see them undergoing these chemical changes
at such freezing-cold temperatures," said Gudipati.
Another bonus for the research is that it might explain the mystery of why PAHs have not yet been identified
on ice grains in space.
While the hardy organics are pervasive in the cosmos as gases and hot dust, researchers
have remained puzzled that their signatures do not show up on ice. The new findings show that PAHs, once
they stick to the ice surface, are chemically transformed into other complex organics, explaining why they
might not be seen.
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