Magazine article Science News

Icy Birth? Amino Acids Form in Simulations of Space Ice. (This Week)

Magazine article Science News

Icy Birth? Amino Acids Form in Simulations of Space Ice. (This Week)

Article excerpt

In another step toward understanding the origin of Earth's biological molecules, two independent laboratory experiments have produced amino acids--the building blocks of proteins--by simulating conditions in icy, interstellar space.

The results, published in the March 28 Nature, suggest that some amino acids could have formed in giant clouds of icy particles and then hitched rides on comets and asteroids to planets throughout the universe, says Max Bernstein of NASA'S Ames Research Center in Mountain View, Calif.

In the search for precursors to life on Earth, various researchers have created amino acids and other organic molecules in lab experiments that simulate specific environments, such as those on early Earth or asteroids. Researchers have also speculated that amino acids might form on interstellar ice particles that are exposed to ultraviolet light, yet until now, no one had shown that this could actually happen, says Bernstein.

"I think it's a really exciting justification of the notion that these building blocks can come from outer space," comments Jennifer Blank of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California (SN: 5/19/01, p. 317).

In each of the new experiments, performed at very low temperatures and pressures, scientists chose small molecules found in space and deposited them on a surface while irradiating them with ultraviolet light. Bernstein and his colleagues made an icy layer of water, methanol, ammonia, and hydrogen cyanide. The other team, which includes scientists from four European institutions, used less water than the NASA team did. It also included carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide in its mix but no hydrogen cyanide.

After warming the samples to room temperature, the NASA group detected three amino acids: glycine, alanine, and serine. …

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