Scientists discover cosmic factory for making building blocks of life

September 15, 2013, Imperial College London
The 'Great Comet' of 1996, Hyakutake. Image credit: NASA

Scientists have discovered a 'cosmic factory' for producing the building blocks of life, amino acids, in research published today in the journal Nature Geoscience.

The team from Imperial College London, the University of Kent and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory have discovered that when icy comets collide into a planet, can be produced. These essential building blocks are also produced if a rocky crashes into a planet with an icy surface.

The researchers suggest that this process provides another piece to the puzzle of how life was kick-started on Earth, after a period of time between 4.5 and 3.8 billion years ago when the planet had been bombarded by comets and meteorites.

Dr Zita Martins, co-author of the paper from the Department of Earth Science and Engineering at Imperial College London, says: "Our work shows that the basic building blocks of life can be assembled anywhere in the Solar System and perhaps beyond. However, the catch is that these building blocks need the right conditions in order for life to flourish. Excitingly, our study widens the scope for where these important ingredients may be formed in the Solar System and adds another piece to the puzzle of how life on our planet took root."

Dr Mark Price, co-author from the University of Kent, adds: "This process demonstrates a very simple mechanism whereby we can go from a mix of simple molecules, such as water and carbon-dioxide ice, to a more complicated molecule, such as an amino acid. This is the first step towards life. The next step is to work out how to go from an amino acid to even more complex molecules such as proteins."

The abundance of ice on the surfaces of Enceladus and Europa, which are moons orbiting Saturn and Jupiter respectively, could provide a perfect environment for the production of amino acids, when meteorites crash into their surface, say the researchers. Their work further underlines the importance of future to these moons to search for signs of life.

The researchers discovered that when a comet impacts on a world it creates a shock wave that generates molecules that make up amino acids. The impact of the shock wave also generates heat, which then transforms these molecules into amino acids.

The team made their discovery by recreating the impact of a comet by firing projectiles through a large high speed gun. This gun, located at the University of Kent, uses compressed gas to propel projectiles at speeds of 7.15 kilometres per second into targets of ice mixtures, which have a similar composition to comets. The resulting impact created amino acids such as glycine and D-and L-alanine.

Explore further: New evidence that comets could have seeded life on Earth

More information: Nature Geoscience, DOI: 10.1038/ngeo1930

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3.5 / 5 (11) Sep 15, 2013
If that's how it's done, then there is no reason to assume that earth is the only planet where life exists. In fact, this Universe must be rife with life.
1.7 / 5 (10) Sep 15, 2013
Miller & Urey did the same thing 60 years ago. They used an electric discharge instead of a shock wave. See: http://en.wikiped...periment
Nothing new here.
3.7 / 5 (6) Sep 15, 2013
@baudrunner - that is how the step of creating amino acids is done.
And there are other ways to do, too, so this key step must be very common and the universe must indeed be rife with the building blocks of life.

Life itself takes additional steps.
There are likely also many ways for those steps, and at least one way, serpentine rocks meeting sea water made acidic by CO2, should occur on most wet rocky planets

So with comets delivering the water and amino acids building blocks to rocky planets (and moons), life is indeed likely to be fairly common.
4.3 / 5 (6) Sep 16, 2013
I really, really like the filtering of lunatic trolling which I assumed happened here. (I'm not checking, the handle is a creationist loon.)

The problem with trolls is that you shouldn't feed them, but as pigeons they walk all over the board and shit on the science.


It is a bigger question. To break it down:

- Multicellularity isn't rare. Last I saw a review they had 14 independent cases, mostly bacteria forming fruit bodies, but I hear there may be > 20.

- Complex multicellularity, differentiated cells, isn't rare. We have 5-6 independent cases in cyanobacteria, protists (brown algae), plants et cetera.

- Energetic complex multicellulars isn't rare. They build on endosymbiosis and we have many independent examples in bacteria (eukaryote formation, several insect symbionts) and eukaryotes.

Lorentz Descartes
1.4 / 5 (9) Sep 16, 2013
Hollywood will not make a blockbuster about the life and times of primordial ooze. That's the realm of lame 'reality' television.

Nice dig, Neinsense!!

What i also think is that, since life on earth has changed our whole atmosphere to such an 'unnatural' state of oxygen richness, perhaps astronomers should look for other unusual occurrences in our skies. I wonder sometimes if perhaps many of those unexplained galaxy rotations and a thousand other discrepancies might simply be signs of life ..

3 / 5 (6) Sep 16, 2013

- Tissue forming energetic multicellulars isn't rare. We have independent cases in slime molds (dictyostelids) and animals.

- Intelligent tissue forming energetic multicellulars isn't rare. We have independent cases in cephalopods, invertebrates and vertebrates.

What should be rare and seems to be rare is language capable organisms out of this. We only know one species (likely early Homo s. including neanderthals and denisovans). Disregarding selection bias, it evolved many 100's of million years after intelligence (brains or mushroom bodies) evolved.

I see promising language theories which may be able to predict this. The flexible coding (adaptable terms) is a product of a flexible "theory of self" adapted to "theory of others". This presumably then evolves as a species self-domesticate, up to the point that learning by feedback happens. (This may be unique in humans.)

Well, we'll see if we can get a handle on how civilization occurs, and how often.

2.3 / 5 (3) Sep 16, 2013

If civilizations happens with a delay time of every few 100's of million years, it may still be a common outcome on longtime inhabited planets.

@Lorentz Descartez:

In a sense that is happening, because artifact search is part of SETI. "Artifacts" can be partly constrained with what we know of, in the same way that other life signs can.

However to just look for "unusual occurrences" is an eager, unconstrained pattern search. As such it will result in (very many) false positives and nothing else.

It will also attract people that utilize the possibility of cold reading to net the results they want. (Typically money, fame, attention,... Compare with fortune tellers. We all know the sort, arxiv and lunacy trolling are filled with them.)

That is not useful science IMO.
3.7 / 5 (3) Sep 16, 2013
such an 'unnatural' state of oxygen richness, perhaps astronomers should look for other unusual occurrences in our skies

With our current state of the art telescopes we are just barely able to see fine enough detail on our nearest neighboring exoplanets, and it takes a lot of work to do it.

If oxygen rich planets are common enough that there are some within 50 LY, we should be able to detect them within the next couple of decades though. We are very close to the technology needed to find them. The Webb telescope might identify such planets, if they successfully deploy it.

Right now, the race is on to develop reliable methodologies to deduce an exoplanet's atmosphere, and multiple methods are ideal so as to allow independent verification.

It will be a landmark in the history books if (when?) we find signs of an exo-biosphere.
1 / 5 (10) Sep 16, 2013
Now we just need to find some real evidence of such impacts.
5 / 5 (5) Sep 16, 2013
@cantdrive85: you mean like watching comet Shoemaker-Levi hit Jupiter?
3 / 5 (2) Sep 17, 2013
Er, Larry, I'm not sure what you're on about. Humans sprang up from the eye. Originally an eyespot was just a light-dark monitor. But the more you put together, the more you have to actually process behind that. And they have to coordinate, if you want anything more than a cluster of sensors that are redundant.

So, you eventually end up with cephalization due to wanting your eyespots and their associated processing close to where the "front" of motility ends up, so you get early warning. Keep this going, keep adding more sub-processing to what originally was a cluster of sensors, and add a "memory" for patterns that are good or bad. You're well on your way to a brain.

The rest involves social cues, responding in groups - a lot of things you see in primates and dolphins and some parrots. So, it's not like it's sudden or a one-off.
5 / 5 (1) Sep 17, 2013
Torbjorn, your:
What should be rare and seems to be rare is language capable organisms out of this. We only know one species (likely early Homo s. including neanderthals and denisovans). Disregarding selection bias, it evolved many 100's of million years after intelligence (brains or mushroom bodies) evolved.

I really think the key impetus with our ancestors was the relative advantage derived from using tools.
Tools, here, are just things our forebears found around them which could be used to dig, bash and scrape *other stuff* with which improved their capabilities in finding and processes foodstuffs.

Because such tools are external to the body and they act on something else which is external, their usage is something each individual must learn because genetic coding cannot evolve directly for this purpose. [This is different from the evolution of instincts for the direct manipulations of food or nest building materials. ]
Continued below ...
5 / 5 (2) Sep 17, 2013
[to Torbjorn] continued:

So what evolved was extra representational capacity for dealing with external objects so those objects are then used to affect the ultimate targets of the behaviours.
The other key ingredient was the evolution of an ability to copy the actions of another; this is the essential source and foundation of all human culture. It is easy to infer that this evolved out of the ability to pay attention to the most important other members of the troupe and to follow them. Given the context of nutritional advantages of tool usage, the skill of copying useful behaviours off the mother and important others - who obviously were competent survivors - had selective advantage.
'Monkey see, monkey do' was a key winning strategy for our kind of ape.

As the capability of objectively representing both tools and behaviours of others became entrenched in human brains, it became advantageous to label objects and behaviours with discrete sound forms; words became useful
cont. below
5 / 5 (2) Sep 17, 2013
Words are items of behaviour: sound forming behaviours which can *only* be acquired through copying significant others. Their utility as tools for abstract denotation [a form of pointing] has ensured that the ability to copy the words of others has become a central feature of human life.

It seems that the ability to control, predict and cause the movements of external objects, in relation to other [third party?] things became mirrored in the usage of words as transitive tools or forces.
In other words by at least a million years ago people had lots of simple sentences in their vocal repertoires. I think they made simple songs and dances also.
Then came a 'Big Bang' about a hundred thousand years ago with the advent of versatile grammar; Homo sapiens [sapiens] started telling each other stories about themselves and the world as they came out of the riverland swamps and coastal wetlands of eastern Africa.
3 / 5 (4) Sep 17, 2013
I really don't see the value of speculating about it. The fact is that we just don't know.

It seems to me that you can find examples of other animals doing all sorts of 'advanced' things. Lots of animals build complicated structures. Lots of animals communicate with sounds and gestures. Some animals can use simple tools.

It may be a mistake to think it's such a simple thing as just tools or language. It could have been much more complex than that. Diet probably played a big part in humans becoming 'different'. And there's a whole lot of things that add up to our diet being so different.

Humans are a pack community, so we probably started off like lions, wolves, etc. I like the lions as an example better than wolves because lions actually have division of labor and specialization when hunting.

I strongly suspect that the organization needed for big game hunting would have been important. Drawing might also have been an important early skill.
not rated yet Sep 21, 2013
sorry to be so tardy in responding.
"such a simple thing as just tools or language" I disagree mightily with your assumptions there;
use of tools is not a 'simple thing' neither is language and the degree to which human beings do both is several orders of magnitude greater than the nearest rivals.

In my previous post I tried to indicate succinctly some of what is involved in the human usage of tools and how this was a foundation for the abstraction and complexity of our language usage.

Human socialisation has evolved out of a Chimpanzee/Bonobo type origin. The crucial differences are due to the extent which memetically transmitted culture has opened out vastly greater opportunities for people to do different things from the other animals.

Yes changes of diet have been very important but again the biggest influencing factor with food processing has been the use of fire, which is a complex skill transmitted by copying the actions of others.
Captain Stumpy
1 / 5 (8) Sep 21, 2013
Yes changes of diet have been very important but again the biggest influencing factor with food processing has been the use of fire, which is a complex skill transmitted by copying the actions of others.

I agree with GSwift7 - we can speculate all day long, but we jt don't know. for instance... there are some studies that state that it was the introduction of meats in our diet that gave way to the development of larger brains that possibly led to the other (tools, language, drawing, etc) skills in the first place. (I would link it but I am too lazy and rushed right now to look)

it is pretty much clear that the entire process was complicated, but I don't think any SINGLE precursor lead to our extreme development, as there is no proof that currently points to a single event. Therefore, as GSwift7 states, "we just don't know."

speculation may help us look, but hypothesis without evidence is not valid proof.
Captain Stumpy
1 / 5 (8) Sep 21, 2013
and though the pointing out of other animals that have adapted certain similar stratagem (like simple tool using by chimps, etc) may be evidence to some, it is not hard fact. After all, how related are we to the Raven or Parrot, both of which have demonstrated fairly good problem solving skills (Ravens have been observed to drop nuts in the road to get car to crack them open, watching the street lights to know when it was safe to set/retrieve the nut/meat).

it is anecdotal, but can be used to point us in a direction. I would not, however, use it as proof of ancestry.

Whereas tools and language are not "simple things" now, they did evolve from simpler things. Each in its own contributed to our evolution... to assign one favor is simply not possible without hard empirical data. you were very succinct, but I am waiting for more/better data.

this is IMHO - I will stay open, but I am staying with Swift7 on this right now.
5 / 5 (1) Sep 22, 2013
Well Cap'n, I agree that there is still much much more to be discovered but the use of tools to the degree achieved by our ancestors is unprecedented in the rest of the animal world, and that started at least a couple of million years ago I think. [Note: I am not any kind of an expert ;I just like to see plain English explanations of things stated clearly where the evidence ties in.]
I saw an article in Scientific American magazine some years ago in which evidence was shown that tribes of chimpanzees in widely separated regions of central Africa had different preferred ways of making little tools for getting termites out of termite colonies to eat. It seems fairly clear that these different tribes of chimps had similar but different cultures [ie they learned the techniques by copying those around them, but primarily their mothers].
We are the closest apes to chimpanzees, apart from the bonobos. We learned to copy better, much better, than they did.
5 / 5 (1) Sep 22, 2013
Re diet: we don't eat wood and we cannot digest cellulose but way more than a million years ago our ancestors learned how to process cellulose and lignin - by burning sticks and grass.
The domestication of fire increased the amount of energy at their disposal by an order of magnitude and empowered women in particular because roasting made more things to be edible and/or parasite free. Firebrands and burning off could kept pests and predators at a distance also.

Yes it is speculation but if we keep in mind that mammalian evolution is about the begetting and then the survival of offspring. In other words babies must survive to maturity. This means that babies and their mothers are more or less *the* key link. Human evolution is not about "man the mighty hunter", it is about kids who play around and discover new things to do and yet still survive because they have mothers who can keep them alive and teach them.
Captain Stumpy
1 / 5 (8) Sep 22, 2013
i understand what you are saying. i am not disputing that. i also agree about babies being the key to survival fo the species...

perhaps i was not as clear as i should have been. we just dont know. i dont think it is as simple as "one" thing... and i believe ALL things started simply.

it is pretty much clear that the entire process was complicated, but I don't think any SINGLE precursor lead to our extreme development, as there is no proof that currently points to a single event. Therefore, as GSwift7 states, "we just don't know."

my apologies if I have confused anyone...perhaps i should have just left it with this? i dont know. but that pretty much sums it up. like i said, i keep an open mind, but i will also wait for proof.

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