A Key Ingredient For Life Fell To Earth From Outer Space


Phosphates, a key element of the building blocks for life, came to Earth from outer space, according to a new study.

Whether the necessary ingredients for life come baked into a planet when it’s born or they’re added later by meteorites and comets is a source of much debate. The latest study from researchers at the University of Hawaii at Manatoa provides compelling new evidence that phosphorous compounds at least were generated in space and came to Earth in its first billion years on the backs of falling space rocks.

Phosphates and diphosporic acid are two major elements that are essential in molecular biology. They are the main components of chromosomes, which carry our genetic information. Without them, we wouldn’t be able to self-replicate through our DNA.

Rosetta image taken by the OSIRIS narrow-angle camera of Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko captured at 10:14 GMT from an altitude of about 1.2 km on 30 September, 2016. (Credit: ESA/Rosetta)ESA/Rosetta

“On Earth, phosphine is lethal to living beings,” said Andrew Turner, lead author of the study in Nature Communications, in a statement. “But in the interstellar medium, an exotic phosphine chemistry can promote rare chemical reaction pathways to initiate the formation of biorelevant molecules such as oxoacids of phosphorus, which eventually might spark the molecular evolution of life as we know it.”

The research team replicated interstellar icy grains coated with carbon dioxide and water in an ultra-high vacuum chamber cooled to -450°F to mimic outer space. When they also exposed the grains to ionising radiation like the cosmic rays of the Universe, multiple phosphorous oxoacids were formed.

“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,” said UH Mānoa chemistry Professor Ralf Kaiser.

The phosphates would then have made their way to Earth, and potentially to other planets or moons, in meteor showers.

“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.

Figuring out how compounds like these were made is essential to the understanding of how life is created and how we might search our Universe for other beings.

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