• New study explores the origin story of phosphorus
  • Phosphorus may have come to Earth via comets
  • Phosphorus is crucial for the formation of DNA

An element, extremely rare, essential in forming DNA and sustaining life on Earth, phosphorus, may have its origin story in deep space. According to scientists, it may have first come on the planet through comets from newborn stars.

The presence of phosphorus on Earth is a continuing mystery. However, researchers at the European Southern Observatory (ESO) have suggested that it may have first come on Earth in the form of phosphorus monoxide, which is phosphorus bonded with one oxygen molecule.

According to research published in the journal Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, phosphorus monoxide forms during the birth of new stars. Moreover, the scientists also found the molecule in a comet revolving around Jupiter. It is a frozen ball of ice and rock known as 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko or just 67P.

“As comets most probably delivered large amounts of organic compounds to the Earth, the phosphorus monoxide found in comet 67P may strengthen the link between comets and life on Earth,” Kathrin Altwegg, the author in the study said during a press release.

Phosphorus is an important element that holds the strings of nucleotides that put together the DNA. Also, it helps to store the energy of the cells and build cell walls.

The scientists studied the data received from a spacecraft known as Rosetta, which orbited the comet 67P in August 2014. The researchers found fragments of phosphorus in data Rosetta collected about the comet, however, they did not determine which molecule the element belongs to.

Altwegg stated that an astronomer at a convention came up with a suggestion.

“She said that phosphorus monoxide would be a very likely candidate, so I went back to our data, and there it was,” Altwegg said. Phosphorus monoxide can be in comets after the newborn star’s walls collapse. It is likely that a molecule can get stuck in the grains of dust that revolves around the new star and some grains fuse with the comets.

Comet 67P
This view shows Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko as seen by the OSIRIS wide-angle camera on ESA's Rosetta spacecraft on September 29, 2016, when Rosetta was at an altitude of 14 miles (23 kilometers). ESA/Rosetta/MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA