Asteroid May Help Explain How Life Started on Earth

Sunday, February 18, 2018 - 08:22

Director of the NSF-NASA Center for Chemical Evolution at the Georgia Institute of Technology, Nicholas Hud, has stated that finding molecules in asteroids provides the strongest evidence that such compounds were present on the Earth before life formed.

Asteroids play an entirely different role for researchers that of time capsules showing what molecules originally existed in our solar system. Having that information gives scientists the starting point they need to reconstruct the complex pathway that got life started on Earth, phy.org reports.

Knowing what molecules were present helps establish the initial conditions that led to the formation of amino acids and related compounds that, in turn, came together to form peptides, small protein-like molecules that may have kicked off life on this planet.

NASA scientists have been analyzing compounds found in asteroids and meteorites for decades, and their work provides a solid understanding for what might have been present when the Earth itself was formed, Hud says.

"If you model a prebiotic chemical reaction in the laboratory, scientists can argue about whether or not you had the right starting materials," said Hud. "Detection of a molecule in an asteroid or meteorite is about the only evidence everyone will accept for that molecule being prebiotic. It's something we can really lean on."

Geologists believe the Earth was very different billions of years ago. Instead of continents, there were islands protruding from the oceans. Even the sun was different, producing less light but more cosmic rays - which could have helped power the protein-forming chemical reactions.

"There are probably a lot more clues in the asteroids about what molecules were really there," said Hud. "We may not even know what we should be looking for in these asteroids, but by looking at what molecules we find, we can ask different and more questions about how they could have helped get life started."

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