A team of researchers led by Sandra Pizzarello, of the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry in Arizona State University, found that the Sutter’s Mill meteorite (pictured), which exploded over California last year, contains organic molecules not previously detected in meteorites. Detection of the falling meteor by Doppler weather radar allowed for rapid recovery so that scientists could study for the first time a primitive meteorite with little exposure to the elements, providing a pristine look at the surface of primitive asteroids.
This research suggests a far greater availability of extraterrestrial organic molecules than previously thought possible, which may have been important for molecular evolution and life itself.
“The analyses of meteorites never cease to surprise you … and make you wonder. This is a meteorite whose organics had been found altered by heat and of little appeal for bio- or prebiotic chemistry, yet the very Solar System processes that lead to its alteration seem also to have brought about novel and complex molecules of definite prebiotic interest such as polyethers,” explains Pizzarello.
Pizzarello and her team hydrothermally treated fragments of the meteorite and then detected released compounds by gas chromatography-mass spectrometry. The hydrothermal conditions of the experiments mimic early Earth environmental conditions (proximity to volcanic activity and impact craters). The team detected a complex mixture of oxygen-rich compounds which include a variety of long chain linear and branched polyethers – a molecule pervasive in biochemistry.
This addition to list of known organic compounds produced in extraterrestrial environments furthers the discourse of whether their delivery to the early Earth by comets and meteorites might have aided the molecular evolution that preceded the origins of life.
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