Miller, Urey and The Comets

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Miller, Urey and The Comets

Postby Brian Jordan » Mon Sep 16, 2013 4:33 pm

Long before Bill Haley and The Comets. Maybe you've heard of acoustic analysis in chemistry? Now, it seems, we have acoustic synthesis - though it needs a very loud noise...
Study: crashing comets helped create building blocks of life
16 September 13
The ingredients for life are spread all across our Solar System and indeed the Universe. They include mundane and ordinary chemicals, like ammonia, methanol and carbon dioxide.

Now new research has shown that all you need to turn these boring chemicals into amino acids, the building blocks of proteins, is a shockwave. Specifically, the kind of shockwaves you get when a comet crashes into a planet.

Understanding how life began is a tricky business, to say the least. Researchers across the world are using various approaches to figure out the different ways in which the complex molecules we find in living organisms are formed from more simple molecules found throughout the Universe. This team in Denmark, for example, is using computer modelling to understand the myriad chemical pathways involved with hydrogen cyanide.

In 2010, Nir Goldman of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California hypothesised that comet impacts could be one way for pre-life compounds, known as prebiotic compounds, to be synthesised. The mechanism was considered by some to be "unlikely", he noted in the paper's abstract, due to "the high heat from impact", among other things.

His computer model has now been supported by experimental research, in which samples of ice mimicking the composition of comets were shot with a projectile travelling 7.1 kilometres a second. By recreating a cometary impact, the researchers, including Goldman, were able to produce amino acids like those found in bacterial cell walls.

"We know that when a [cometary] impact occurs, it happens at an extremely high speed," says Zita Martins of Imperial College London, lead author of the study published in Nature Geoscience. "The temperature and pressure is huge [so] molecular bonds break and you generate more complex molecules."

An icy mixture containing dissolved ammonia, methanol and carbon dioxide was placed in a gas gun at the University of Kent. Projectiles were then fired at the mixture, with amino acids only being produced when an impact occurred and when all three of the components were present.
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