Forum for Science, Industry and Business

Sponsored by:     3M 
Search our Site:

 

New Technique Could Be Used to Search Space Dust for Life's Ingredients

04.02.2014
While the origin of life remains mysterious, scientists are finding more and more evidence that material created in space and delivered to Earth by comet and meteor impacts could have given a boost to the start of life. Some meteorites supply molecules that can be used as building blocks to make certain kinds of larger molecules that are critical for life.

esearchers have analyzed carbon-rich meteorites (carbonaceous chondrites) and found amino acids, which are used to make proteins. Proteins are among the most important molecules in life, used to make structures like hair and skin, and to speed up or regulate chemical reactions. They have also found components used to make DNA, the molecule that carries the instructions for how to build and regulate a living organism, as well as other biologically important molecules like nitrogen heterocycles, sugar-related organic compounds, and compounds found in modern metabolism.


This photo compares the sample size typically used in meteorite studies (yellow oval) to the sample size used with the new equipment (blue circle) in Goddard's Astrobiology Analytical Laboratory. Image Credit: Michael Callahan


This equipment is used by Goddard's Astrobiology Analytical Lab to analyze very small samples. On the right is the nanoelectrospray emitter, which gives sample molecules an electric charge and transfers them to the inlet of the mass spectrometer (left), which identifies the molecules by their mass. Image Credit: Michael Callahan

However, these carbon-rich meteorites are relatively rare, comprising less than five percent of recovered meteorites, and meteorites make up just a portion of the extraterrestrial material that comes to Earth. Also, the building-block molecules found in them usually have been at low concentrations, typically parts-per-million or parts-per-billion. This raises the question of how significant their supply of raw material was. However, Earth constantly receives other extraterrestrial material – mostly in the form of dust from comets and asteroids.

"Despite their small size, these interplanetary dust particles may have provided higher quantities and a steadier supply of extraterrestrial organic material to early Earth," said Michael Callahan of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. "Unfortunately, there have been limited studies examining their organic composition, especially with regards to biologically relevant molecules that may have been important for the origin of life, due to the miniscule size of these samples."

Callahan and his team at Goddard's Astrobiology Analytical Laboratory have recently applied advanced technology to inspect extremely small meteorite samples for the components of life. "We found amino acids in a 360 microgram sample of the Murchison meteorite," said Callahan. "This sample size is 1,000 times smaller than the typical sample size used." A microgram is one-millionth of a gram; 360 micrograms is about the weight of a few eyebrow hairs. 28.35 grams equal an ounce.

"Our study was for proof-of-concept," adds Callahan. "Murchison is a well-studied meteorite. We got the same results looking at a very small fragment as we did a much larger fragment from the same meteorite. These techniques will allow us to investigate other small-scale extraterrestrial materials such as micrometeorites, interplanetary dust particles, and cometary particles in future studies." Callahan is lead author of a paper on this research available online in the Journal of Chromatography A.

Analyzing such tiny samples is extremely challenging. "Extracting much less meteorite powder translates into having much lower amino acid concentration for analyses," said Callahan. "Therefore we need the most sensitive techniques available. Also, since meteorite samples can be highly complex, techniques that are highly specific for these compounds are necessary too."

The team used a nanoflow liquid chromatography instrument to sort the molecules in the meteorite sample, then applied nanoelectrospray ionization to give the molecules an electric charge and deliver them to a high-resolution mass spectrometer instrument, which identified the molecules based on their mass. "We are pioneering the application of these techniques for the study of meteoritic organics," said Callahan. "These techniques can be highly finicky, so just getting results was the first challenge."

"I'm particularly interested in analyzing cometary particles from the Stardust mission," adds Callahan. "It's one of the reasons why I came to NASA. When I first saw a photo of the aerogel used to capture particles for the Stardust mission, I was hooked."

"This technology will also be extremely useful to search for amino acids and other potential chemical biosignatures in samples returned from Mars and eventually plume materials from the outer planet icy moons Enceladus and Europa," said Daniel Glavin of the Astrobiology lab at Goddard, a co-author on the paper.

This technology and the laboratory techniques that the Goddard lab develops to apply it to analyze meteorites will be valuable for future sample-return missions since the amount of sample likely will be limited. "Missions involving the collection of extraterrestrial material for sample return to Earth usually collect only a very small amount and the samples themselves can be extremely small as well," said Callahan. "The traditional techniques used to study these materials usually involve inorganic or elemental composition. Targeting biologically relevant molecules in these samples is not routine yet. We are not there either, but we are getting there."

The research was funded by the NASA Astrobiology Institute, the Goddard Center for Astrobiology and the NASA Cosmochemistry Program.

Bill Steigerwald
NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md.
william.a.steigerwald@nasa.gov

Bill Steigerwald | EurekAlert!
Further information:
http://www.nasa.gov
http://www.nasa.gov/content/new-technique-could-be-used-to-search-space-dust-for-lifes-ingredients/#.Uu_sGxAudJs

More articles from Physics and Astronomy:

nachricht Interstellar seeds could create oases of life
28.08.2015 | Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics

nachricht Draw out of the predicted interatomic force
28.08.2015 | Hiroshima University

All articles from Physics and Astronomy >>>

The most recent press releases about innovation >>>

Die letzten 5 Focus-News des innovations-reports im Überblick:

Im Focus: OU astrophysicist and collaborators find supermassive black holes in quasar nearest Earth

A University of Oklahoma astrophysicist and his Chinese collaborator have found two supermassive black holes in Markarian 231, the nearest quasar to Earth, using observations from NASA's Hubble Space Telescope.

The discovery of two supermassive black holes--one larger one and a second, smaller one--are evidence of a binary black hole and suggests that supermassive...

Im Focus: What would a tsunami in the Mediterranean look like?

A team of European researchers have developed a model to simulate the impact of tsunamis generated by earthquakes and applied it to the Eastern Mediterranean. The results show how tsunami waves could hit and inundate coastal areas in southern Italy and Greece. The study is published today (27 August) in Ocean Science, an open access journal of the European Geosciences Union (EGU).

Though not as frequent as in the Pacific and Indian oceans, tsunamis also occur in the Mediterranean, mainly due to earthquakes generated when the African...

Im Focus: Self-healing landscape: landslides after earthquake

In mountainous regions earthquakes often cause strong landslides, which can be exacerbated by heavy rain. However, after an initial increase, the frequency of these mass wasting events, often enormous and dangerous, declines, in fact independently of meteorological events and aftershocks.

These new findings are presented by a German-Franco-Japanese team of geoscientists in the current issue of the journal Geology, under the lead of the GFZ...

Im Focus: FIC Proteins Send Bacteria Into Hibernation

Bacteria do not cease to amaze us with their survival strategies. A research team from the University of Basel's Biozentrum has now discovered how bacteria enter a sleep mode using a so-called FIC toxin. In the current issue of “Cell Reports”, the scientists describe the mechanism of action and also explain why their discovery provides new insights into the evolution of pathogens.

For many poisons there are antidotes which neutralize their toxic effect. Toxin-antitoxin systems in bacteria work in a similar manner: As long as a cell...

Im Focus: Fraunhofer IPA develops prototype of intelligent care cart

It comes when called, bringing care utensils with it and recording how they are used: Fraunhofer IPA is developing an intelligent care cart that provides care staff with physical and informational support in their day-to-day work. The scientists at Fraunhofer IPA have now completed a first prototype. In doing so, they are continuing in their efforts to improve working conditions in the care sector and are developing solutions designed to address the challenges of demographic change.

Technical assistance systems can improve the difficult working conditions in residential nursing homes and hospitals by helping the staff in their work and...

All Focus news of the innovation-report >>>

Anzeige

Anzeige

Event News

Networking conference in Heidelberg for outstanding mathematicians and computer scientists

20.08.2015 | Event News

Scientists meet in Münster for the world’s largest Chitin und Chitosan Conference

20.08.2015 | Event News

Large agribusiness management strategies

19.08.2015 | Event News

 
Latest News

Better daily sea ice forecasts for the Arctic following CU-Boulder-led innovation

31.08.2015 | Earth Sciences

Interstellar seeds could create oases of life

28.08.2015 | Physics and Astronomy

An ounce of prevention: Research advances on 'scourge' of transplant wards

28.08.2015 | Health and Medicine

VideoLinks
B2B-VideoLinks
More VideoLinks >>>