Little was known about a key element in the building blocks, phosphates, until now. University of Hawaii at Manoa researchers, in collaboration with colleagues in France and Taiwan, provide compelling new evidence that this component for life was found to be generated in outer space and delivered to Earth in its first one billion years by meteorites or comets. The phosphorus compounds were then incorporated in biomolecules found in cells in living beings on Earth.
The breakthrough research is outlined in “An Interstellar Synthesis of Phosphorus Oxoacids,” authored by UH Manoa graduate student Andrew Turner, now assistant professor at the University of Pikeville, and UH Manoa chemistry Professor Ralf Kaiser in the September issue of Nature Communications.
Kaiser added, “The phosphorus oxoacids detected in our experiments by combination of sophisticated analytics involving lasers, coupled to mass spectrometers along with gas chromatographs, might have also been formed within the ices of comets such as 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, which contains a phosphorus source believed to derive from phosphine.” Kaiser says these techniques can also be used to detect trace amounts of explosives and drugs.
“Since comets contain at least partially the remnants of the material of the protoplanetary disk that formed our solar system, these compounds might be traced back to the interstellar medium wherever sufficient phosphine in interstellar ices is available,” said Cornelia Meinert of the University of Nice (France).
Upon delivery to Earth by meteorites or comets, these phosphorus oxoacids might have been available for Earth’s prebiotic phosphorus chemistry. Hence an understanding of the facile synthesis of these oxoacids is essential to untangle the origin of water-soluble prebiotic phosphorus compounds and how they might have been incorporated into organisms not only on Earth, but potentially in our universe as well. Paper. (open access) – Andrew M. Turner, Alexandre Bergantini, Matthew J. Abplanalp, Cheng Zhu, Sándor Góbi, Bing-Jian Sun, Kang-Heng Chao, Agnes H. H. Chang, Cornelia Meinert, Ralf I. Kaiser. An interstellar synthesis of phosphorus oxoacids. Nature Communications, 2018; 9 (1) DOI: 10.1038/s41467-018-06415-7 More.
Our physics color commentator Rob Sheldon thinks that the idea that building blocks of life came from space is plausible and should be demonstrable. On the other hand, this story contains a lot of “mights.” Let it cool first.
See also: New paper: Cambrian explosion driven by viruses from space
Skeptic: Panspermia (life came from elsewhere than Earth) is “pseudoscience”
Panspermia (maybe life came from outer space) is back, in Progress in Biophysics and Molecular Biology
That panspermia paper at Progress in Biophysics & Molecular Biology generated some heat: Links and analysis
What we know and don’t know about the origin of life