Even More Complex Organic Molecules Have Been Found in a Protoplanetary Disc. Was Life Inevitable?

This artist's concept a protoplanetary disk around a young star. Researchers at the Leiden Observatory found the large organic molecule dimethyl ether in a protoplanetary disk for the first time. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Will we ever understand life’s origins? Will we ever be able to put our finger on the exact moment and circumstances that lead to living matter? Will we ever pinpoint the spark? Who knows.

But what we can do is find out how widespread the conditions for life are and how widespread the molecular constituents for life are.

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One of Life’s Building Blocks can Form in Space

A new kind of chemical reaction can explain how peptides can form on the icy layers of cosmic dust grains. Those peptides could have been transported to the early Earth by meteorites, asteroids or comets. Image Credit: © S. Krasnokutski / MPIA Graphics Department

Peptides are one of the smallest biomolecules and are one of life’s critical building blocks. New research shows that they could form on the surfaces of icy grains in space. This discovery lends credence to the idea that meteoroids, asteroids, or comets could have given life on Earth a kick start by crashing into the planet and delivering biological building blocks.

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Did Asteroid Impacts Provide Both the Heat and Raw Ingredients to Enable Life?

An artist's conception of an asteroid collision, which leads to how "families" of these space rocks are made in the belt between Mars and Jupiter. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
An artist's conception of an asteroid collision, in the belt between Mars and Jupiter. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

This is our Great Question: How did life begin on Earth? Anyone who says they have the answer is telling tall tales. We just don’t know yet.

While a definitive answer may be a long way off—or may never be found—there are some clever ways to nibble at the edges of that Great Question. A group of researchers at Kobe University in Japan are taking their own bites out of that compelling question with a question of their own: Did the heat from asteroid impacts help life get started?

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Glycine Can Form In Interstellar Clouds

Author’s note: This article was written in collaboration with Vincent Kofman, a co-author of the paper it discusses and Post Doctoral Researcher at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center

Amino acids are one of the most important building blocks of life as we know it. At its core, they contain an amino and an acid group, through which they can link together with other amino acids. That linking process can form long chains, which is how they form proteins. In humans, 20 different amino acids make up all proteins, and the difference between them is in the molecular side chain between the amino and the acid group. The different groups make interconnections in the chain, folding it into highly specific forms, allowing the proteins to perform highly specific tasks, ranging from metabolism, to muscle movement, and cell duplication.

Given that their presence is a necessary, though not necessarily a sufficient, condition for the development of life, scientists have spent many decades exploring where they first formed.  With a paper in Nature Astronomy published last month, they moved one step closer to that understanding, by discovering that it is possible to form glycine, the simplest amino acid, in the star nurseries of interstellar clouds.

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One of the Building Blocks of Life Can Form in the Harsh Environment of Deep Space Itself. No Star Required

A new study from the University of Edinburgh suggests that life could be distributed throughout the cosmos by interstellar dust. Credit: ESO/R. Fosbury (ST-ECF)

In many ways, stars are the engines of creation. Their energy drives a whole host of processes necessary for life. Scientists thought that stellar radiation is needed to create compounds like the amino acid glycine, one of the building blocks of life.

But a new study has found that glycine detected in comets formed in deep interstellar space when there was no stellar energy.

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We’re Made of Starstuff. Especially From Extremely Massive Stars

An illustration of a protoplanetary disk. Planets coalesce out of the remaining molecular cloud the star formed out of. Within this accretion disk lay the fundamental elements necessary for planet formation and potential life. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/T. Pyle (SSC) - February, 2005
An illustration of a protoplanetary disk. Planets coalesce out of the remaining molecular cloud the star formed out of. Within this accretion disk lay the fundamental elements necessary for planet formation and potential life. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/T. Pyle (SSC) - February, 2005

A new study shows how massive young stars create the kind of organic molecules that are necessary for life.

A team of researchers used an airborne observatory to examine the inner regions around two massive young stars. Along with water, they found things like ammonia and methane. These molecules are swirling around in a disk of material that surrounds the young stars.

That material is the same stuff that planets form from, and the study presents some new insights into how the stuff of life becomes incorporated into planets.

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Curiosity Finds Organic Molecules That Could Have Been Produced by Life on Mars

A computer generated view of Mars, with an area including Gale Crater beginning to catch morning light. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

What do coal, crude oil, and truffles have in common? Go ahead. We’ll wait.

The answer is thiophenes, a molecule that behaves a lot like benzene. Crude oil, coal, and truffles all contain thiophenes. So do a few other substances. MSL Curiosity found thiophenes on Mars, and though that doesn’t conclusively prove that Mars once hosted life, its discovery is an important milestone for the rover. Especially since truffles are alive, and oil and coal used to be, sort of.

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Rosetta Saw the Building Blocks of Life on Comet 67P

Comet 67P as seen by Rosetta on 7 July 2015. By ESA/Rosetta/NAVCAM, CC BY-SA IGO 3.0, CC BY-SA 3.0-igo, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=41733207

Why is there so little nitrogen in Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko (67P)? That’s a question scientists asked themselves when they looked at the data from the ESA’s Rosetta spacecraft. In fact, it’s a question they ask themselves every time they measure the gases in a comet’s coma. When Rosetta visited the comet in 2014, it measured the gases and found that there was very little nitrogen.

In two new papers published in Nature Astronomy, researchers suggest that the nitrogen isn’t really missing at all, it’s just hidden in the building blocks of life.

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