Is life the rule or the exception? The answer may be in the interstellar clouds
28 May 2002Is life a highly improbable event, or is it rather the inevitable consequence of a rich chemical soup available everywhere in the cosmos? Scientists have recently found new evidence that amino acids, the 'building-blocks' of life, can form not only in comets and asteroids, but also in the interstellar space. This result is consistent with (although of course does not prove) the theory that the main ingredients for life came from outer space, and therefore that chemical processes leading to life are likely to have occurred elsewhere. This reinforces the interest in an already 'hot' research field, astrochemistry. ESA's forthcoming missions Rosetta and Herschel will provide a wealth of new information for this topic.
Amino acids are the 'bricks' of the proteins, and proteins are a type of compound present in all living organisms. Amino acids have been found in meteorites that have landed on Earth, but never in space. In meteorites amino acids are generally thought to have been produced soon after the formation of the Solar System, by the action of aqueous fluids on comets and asteroids - objects whose fragments became today's meteorites. However, new results published recently in Nature by two independent groups show evidence that amino acids can also form in space.
Between stars there are huge clouds of gas and dust, the dust consisting of tiny grains typically smaller than a millionth of a millimetre. The teams reporting the new results, led by a United States group and a European group, reproduced the physical steps leading to the formation of these grains in the interstellar clouds in their laboratories, and found that amino acids formed spontaneously in the resulting artificial grains.
The researchers started with water and a variety of simple molecules that are known to exist in the 'real' clouds, such as carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, ammonia and hydrogen cyanide. Although these initial ingredients were not exactly the same in each experiment, both groups 'cooked' them in a similar way. In specific chambers in the laboratory they reproduced the common conditions of temperature and pressure known to exist in interstellar clouds, which is, by the way, quite different from our 'normal' conditions. Interstellar clouds have a temperature of 260 °C below zero, and the pressure is also very low (almost zero). Great care was taken to exclude contamination. As a result, grains analogous to those in the clouds were formed.
The researchers illuminated the artificial grains with ultraviolet radiation, a process that typically triggers chemical reactions between molecules and that also happens naturally in the real clouds. When they analysed the chemical composition of the grains, they found that amino acids had formed. The United States team detected glycine, alanine and serine, while the European team listed up to 16 amino acids. The differences are not considered relevant since they can be attributed to differences in the initial ingredients. According to the authors, what is relevant is the demonstration that amino acids can indeed form in space, as a by-product of chemical processes that take place naturally in the interstellar clouds of gas and dust.
Max P. Bernstein from the United States team points out that the gas and dust in the interstellar clouds serve as 'raw material' to build stars and planetary systems such as our own. These clouds "are thousands of light years across; they are vast, ubiquitous, chemical reactors. As the materials from which all stellar systems are made pass through such clouds, amino acids should have been incorporated into all other planetary systems, and thus been available for the origin of life."
The view of life as a common event would therefore be favoured by these results. However, many doubts remain. For example, can these results really be a clue to what happened about four billion years ago on the early Earth? Can researchers be truly confident that the conditions they recreate are those in the interstellar space?
Guillermo M. Muqoz Caro from the European team writes "several parameters still need to be better constrained (...) before a reliable estimation on the extraterrestrial delivery of amino acids to the early Earth can be made. To this end, in situ analysis of cometary material will be performed in the near future by space probes such as Rosetta ..."
The intention for ESA's spacecraft Rosetta is to provide key data for this question. Rosetta, to be launched next year, will be the first mission ever to orbit and land on a comet, namely Comet 46P/Wirtanen. Starting in 2011, Rosetta will have two years to examine in deep detail the chemical composition of the comet.
As Rosetta's project scientist Gerhard Schwehm has stated, "Rosetta will carry sophisticated payloads that will study the composition of the dust and gas released from the comet's nucleus and help to answer the question: did comets bring water and organics to Earth?"
If amino acids can also form in the space amid the stars, as the new evidence suggests, research should also focus on the chemistry in the interstellar space. This is exactly one of the main goals of the astronomers preparing for ESA's space telescope Herschel.
Herschel, with its impressive mirror of 3.5 metres in diameter (the largest of any imaging space telescope) is due to be launched in 2007. One of its strengths is that it will 'see' a kind of radiation that has never been detected before. This radiation is far-infrared and submillimetre light, precisely what you need to detect if you are searching for complex chemical compounds such as the organic molecules.
The results of the laboratory experiments were published in the 28 March issue of Nature:
Amino acids from ultraviolet irradiation of interstellar ice analogues by G. M. Muqoz Caro (Leiden Observatory, The Netherlands) et al.
Racemic amino acids from the ultraviolet photolysis of interstellar ice analogues by Max. P. Berstein (SETI Institute, United States) et al.