Scientists at Arizona State University, or ASU, have discovered that a meteorite, which exploded in a blazing fireball over California last year, contains ingredients that may hold clues to the evolution of life on Earth.
A team of scientists, led by Sandra Pizzarello, a research professor in ASU's Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, found that the Sutter’s Mill meteorite, which dropped to Earth over California in April 2012, contains never-seen-before organic molecules.
“The analyses of meteorites never cease to surprise you ... and make you wonder,” Pizzarello said, in a statement. “This is a meteorite whose organics had been found altered by heat and of little appeal for bio- or prebiotic chemistry, yet the very Solar System processes that lead to its alteration seem also to have brought about novel and complex molecules of definite prebiotic interest such as polyethers.”
The findings suggest that the existence of a greater number of extraterrestrial organic molecules, which could have been important in molecular evolution and life itself, is possible, according to the study recently published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Pizzarello and her team hydrothermally treated fragments of the meteorite to detect the compounds. The hydrothermal conditions of the experiments, which mimic early Earth settings (a proximity to volcanic activity and impact craters), released a complex mixture of oxygen-rich compounds.
Scientists believe that these compounds could be the result of oxidative processes that occurred in the meteorite.
According to the researchers, the latest discovery is an addition to the inventory of organic compounds produced in extraterrestrial environments, promoting the discourse that their delivery to prehistoric Earth by comets and meteorites might have aided the molecular evolution that preceded the origins of life.
Because meteorites can be rich in organic compounds, their composition “has always been seen as an indication that the precursors to the evolution that led to the origins of life could have come from the extraterrestrial material of meteorites,” Space.com quoted Pizzarello as saying.
“Since the origins of life are utterly unknown, the idea has its merits.”