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Scientists discover cosmic factory for making building blocks of life

16.09.2013
Scientists have discovered a 'cosmic factory' for producing the building blocks of life, amino acids, in research published today in the journal Nature Geoscience.

The team from Imperial College London, the University of Kent and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory have discovered that when icy comets collide into a planet, amino acids can be produced. These essential building blocks are also produced if a rocky meteorite crashes into a planet with an icy surface.

The researchers suggest that this process provides another piece to the puzzle of how life was kick-started on Earth, after a period of time between 4.5 and 3.8 billion years ago when the planet had been bombarded by comets and meteorites.

Dr Zita Martins, co-author of the paper from the Department of Earth Science and Engineering at Imperial College London, says: "Our work shows that the basic building blocks of life can be assembled anywhere in the Solar System and perhaps beyond. However, the catch is that these building blocks need the right conditions in order for life to flourish. Excitingly, our study widens the scope for where these important ingredients may be formed in the Solar System and adds another piece to the puzzle of how life on our planet took root."

Dr Mark Price, co-author from the University of Kent, adds: "This process demonstrates a very simple mechanism whereby we can go from a mix of simple molecules, such as water and carbon-dioxide ice, to a more complicated molecule, such as an amino acid. This is the first step towards life. The next step is to work out how to go from an amino acid to even more complex molecules such as proteins."

The abundance of ice on the surfaces of Enceladus and Europa, which are moons orbiting Saturn and Jupiter respectively, could provide a perfect environment for the production of amino acids, when meteorites crash into their surface, say the researchers. Their work further underlines the importance of future space missions to these moons to search for signs of life.

The researchers discovered that when a comet impacts on a world it creates a shock wave that generates molecules that make up amino acids. The impact of the shock wave also generates heat, which then transforms these molecules into amino acids.

The team made their discovery by recreating the impact of a comet by firing projectiles through a large high speed gun. This gun, located at the University of Kent, uses compressed gas to propel projectiles at speeds of 7.15 kilometres per second into targets of ice mixtures, which have a similar composition to comets. The resulting impact created amino acids such as glycine and D-and L-alanine.

Colin Smith
Senior Research Media Officer – Faculty of Engineering
Tel: +44 (0)20 7594 6712
Email: cd.smith@imperial.ac.uk
Notes to editors
1. DOWNLOAD A COPY OF THE PAPER
'Shock synthesis of amino acids from impacting cometary and icy planet surface analogues' published 15 September 2013, 2013 Nature Geoscience

The full listing of authors and their affiliations for this paper is as follows:

Zita Martins1, Mark C. Price2, Nir Goldman3, Mark A. Sephton1 and Mark J. Burchell2 1Department of Earth Science and Engineering, Imperial College London, SW7 2AZ, UK

2School of Physical Sciences, University of Kent, Canterbury, CT2 7NH, UK

3Physical and Life Sciences Directorate, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, Livermore, California 94550, USA

The following funding acknowledgements from the authors appear at the end of the paper:

We acknowledge financial support from the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC). Z. Martins is financially supported by the Royal Society.

2. About Imperial College London

Consistently rated amongst the world's best universities, Imperial College London is a science-based institution with a reputation for excellence in teaching and research that attracts 14,000 students and 6,000 staff of the highest international quality. Innovative research at the College explores the interface between science, medicine, engineering and business, delivering practical solutions that improve quality of life and the environment - underpinned by a dynamic enterprise culture.

Since its foundation in 1907, Imperial's contributions to society have included the discovery of penicillin, the development of holography and the foundations of fibre optics. This commitment to the application of research for the benefit of all continues today, with current focuses including interdisciplinary collaborations to improve global health, tackle climate change, develop sustainable sources of energy and address security challenges.

In 2007, Imperial College London and Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trust formed the UK's first Academic Health Science Centre. This unique partnership aims to improve the quality of life of patients and populations by taking new discoveries and translating them into new therapies as quickly as possible.

Website: http://www.imperial.ac.uk

3. About the University of Kent

The University of Kent – the UK's European University – was established at Canterbury in 1965. It has almost 20,000 students and operates campuses or study centres at Canterbury, Medway, Tonbridge, Brussels, Paris, Athens and Rome. It has long-standing partnerships with more than 100 major European universities and many others across the world, including institutions in Argentina, China, Japan, USA, Canada, Malaysia and Peru.

Kent is one of the few universities to be consistently rated by its own students as one of the best in the UK for the quality of its teaching and academic provision. This includes its 3rd place for overall student satisfaction in the 2012 National Student Survey. It was also ranked 20th in the 2014 Guardian University Guide, 28th in the Sunday Times University League Table 2013, and 28th in the Complete University Guide 2014.

In the 2008 Research Assessment Exercise, Kent placed 24th out of 159 participating institutions in the UK for its world-leading research, while 97% of its academic staff work in schools or centres where the research is rated as either internationally or nationally excellent.

It is worth £0.6 billion to the economy of the South East, with its students contributing £211 million to that total. The University also supports directly or indirectly almost 6,800 jobs in the South East (source: Viewforth Consulting, 2009-10).

In 2012, Kent launched a campaign to celebrate its 50th anniversary.

Colin Smith | EurekAlert!
Further information:
http://www.imperial.ac.uk

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