It turns out that a key ingredient for life might have originated in space.
According to experts, this new study confirms a long-standing theory which suggests that life as we know it on Earth, may have in fact come from space, increasing the odds of finding life as we know it elsewhere in the universe.
While researchers have focused their search in space for liquid water, it turns out that one of our best chances at understanding life lies within comets and not planets say, researchers. From previous studies, researchers have already learned that amino acids and nucleobases, two key substances needed for life to take root can form on the icy space ‘balls.’ The new study, however, has made another unprecedented discovery as researchers have found that Ribose, the ‘R’ in RNA is found on comets as well.
Researchers sustain that life on Earth came into existence thanks to three main components, three macromolecules: RNA, DNA, and proteins. According to currently accepted views, RNA or Ribonucleic acid originates from DNA on Earth.
Here on Earth, the genetic material of all living organisms, as well as viruses, in constituted of DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) and RNA (ribonucleic acid).
However, there are a couple of mysteries surrounding RNA. In fact, researchers maintain that the conditions necessary for ribose –a pure sugar—to exist, were not present on Earth before life started, a fact that raises a crucial question: Where did Ribose originate from?
As always, researchers turned to science. A team of scientists led by chemist Cornelia Meinert from the University Nice Sophia Antipolis in France ventured out to recreate as best as possible the conditions present in the early age of our solar system to understand whether or not; Ribose could form; Deborah Netburn reports for the Los Angeles Times.
Scientists froze water, ammonia, and methanol to -195 degrees Celsius to recreate a fake comet-like environment in the lab. Then, when researchers felt the temperatures were adequate, they blasted the ‘comet’ with incredible amounts of ultraviolet light, so they could recreate once again, the same type of radiation that a young, Sun-like star would produce. In order to conclude the test, researchers let the comet warm back up and observe the molecules that were created.
To their surprise, the team of researchers found around 55 organic molecules present after tests and the most important and exciting being ribose.
Interestingly, similar experiments have been done around the planet countless times in the past. However, this was the first time scientists utilized multidimensional gas chromatography, a revolutionary technology that makes it much easier to detect molecules.
“Our ice simulation is a very general process that can occur in molecular clouds as well as in protoplanetary disks. It shows that the molecular building blocks of the potential first genetic material are abundant in interstellar environments,” Meinert explains in an interview.
The revolutionary finding suggests that Ribose might have come from Comets or dust clouds and fallen on Earth, when the planet was extremely young, establishing the necessary conditions for life to come into existence.
While the discovery is fascinating, there are still many things scientists need to work out. For example, the discovery was made in a laboratory and not a real comet, so they still have to discover Ribose on a real comet or in dust clouds in space. Likewise, the team has still not understood when Ribose formed: did it form during the heating or cooling process?
Hopefully, these and many other questions will be answered in the near future since scientists are already planning numerous missions into space with one goal: Finding life as we know it, elsewhere in the cosmos.