Origin of life: some news

For self-replicating cells to form there are two essential precursors: water and simple compounds based on the elements carbon, hydrogen, oxygen and nitrogen (CHON). Hydrogen is not a problem, being by far the most abundant element in the universe. Carbon, oxygen and nitrogen form in the cores of stars through nuclear fusion of hydrogen and helium. These elemental building blocks need to be delivered through supernova explosions, ultimately to where water can exist in liquid form to undergo reactions that culminate in living cells. That is only possible on solid bodies that lie at just the right distance from a star to support average surface temperatures that are between the freezing and boiling points of water. Most important is that such a planet in the ‘Goldilocks Zone’ has sufficient mass for its gravity to retain water. Surface water evaporates to some extent to contribute vapour to the atmosphere. Exposed to ultraviolet radiation H2O vapour dissociates into molecular hydrogen and water, which can be lost to space if a planet’s escape velocity is less than the thermal vibration of such gas molecules. Such photo-dissociation and diffusion into outer space may have caused Mars to lose more hydrogen in this way than oxygen, to leave its surface dry but rich in reddish iron oxides.

Despite liquid water being essential for the origin of planetary life it is a mixed blessing for key molecules that support biology. This ‘water paradox’ stems from water molecules attacking and breaking the chemical connections that string together the complex chains of proteins and nucleic acids (RNA and DNA). Living cells resolve the paradox by limiting the circulation of liquid water within them by being largely filled with a gel that holds the key molecules together, rather than being bags of water as has been commonly imagined. That notion stemmed from the idea of a ‘primordial soup’, popularised by Darwin and his early followers, which is now preserved in cells’ cytoplasm. That is now known to be wrong and, in any case, the chemistry simply would not work, either in a ‘warm, little pond’ or close to a deep sea hydrothermal vent, because the molecular chains would be broken as soon as they formed. Modern evolutionary biochemists suggest that much of the chemistry leading to living cells must have taken place in environments that were sometimes dry and sometimes wet; ephemeral puddles on land. Science journalist Michael Marshall has just published an easily read, open-source essay on this vexing yet vital issue in Nature (Marshall, M. 2020. The Water Paradox and the Origins of Life. Nature, v. 588, p. 210-213; DOI: 10.1038/d41586-020-03461-4). If you are interested, click on the link to read Marshall’s account of current origins-of-life research into the role of endlessly repeated wet-dry cycles on the early Earth’s surface. Fascinating reading as the experiments take the matter far beyond the spontaneous formation of the amino acid glycine found by Stanley Miller when he passed sparks through methane, ammonia and hydrogen in his famous 1953 experiment at the University of Chicago. Marshall was spurred to write in advance of NASA’s Perseverance Mission landing on Mars in February 2021. The Perseverance rover aims to test the new hypotheses in a series of lake sediments that appear to have been deposited by wet-dry cycles  in a small Martian impact crater (Jezero Crater) early in the planet’s history when surface water was present.

Crystals of hexamethylenetetramine (Credit: r/chemistry, Reddit)

That CHON and simple compounds made from them are aplenty in interstellar gas and dust clouds has been known since the development of means of analysing the light spectra from them. The organic chemistry of carbonaceous meteorites is also well known; they even smell of hydrocarbons. Accretion of these primitive materials during planet formation is fine as far as providing feedstock for life-forming processes on physically suitable planets. But how did CHON get from giant molecular clouds into such planetesimals. An odd-sounding organic compound – hexamethylenetetramine ((CH2)6N4), or HMT – formed industrially by combining formaldehyde (CH2O) and ammonia (NH3) – was initially synthesised in the late 19th century as an antiseptic to tackle UTIs and is now used as a solid fuel for lightweight camping stoves, as well as much else besides. HMT has a potentially interesting role to play in the origin of life.  Experiments aimed at investigating what happens when starlight and thermal radiation pervade interstellar gas clouds to interact with simple CHON molecules, such as ammonia, formaldehyde, methanol and water, yielded up to 60% by mass of HMT.

The structure of HMT is a sort of cage, so that crystals form large fluffy aggregates, instead of the gases from which it can be formed in deep space. Together with interstellar silicate dusts, such sail-like structures could accrete into planetesimals in nebular star nurseries under the influence of  gravity and light pressure. Geochemists from several Japanese institutions and NASA have, for the first time, found HMT in three carbonaceous chondrites, albeit at very low concentrations – parts per billion (Y. Oba et al. 2020. Extraterrestrial hexamethylenetetramine in meteorites — a precursor of prebiotic chemistry in the inner Solar SystemNature Communications, v. 11, article 6243; DOI: 10.1038/s41467-020-20038-x). Once concentrated in planetesimals – the parents of meteorites when they are smashed by collisions – HMT can perform the useful chemical ‘trick’ of breaking down once again to very simple CHON compounds when warmed. At close quarters such organic precursors can engage in polymerising reactions whose end products could be the far more complex sugars and amino acid chains that are the characteristic CHON compounds of carbonaceous chondrites. Yasuhiro Oba and colleagues may have found the missing link between interstellar space, planet formation and the synthesis of life through the mechanisms that resolve the ‘water paradox’ outlined by Michael Marshall.

See also: Scientists Find Precursor of Prebiotic Chemistry in Three Meteorites (Sci-news, 8 December 2020.)


Extraterrestrial sugar

The coding schemes for Earth’s life and evolution (DNA and RNA), its major building blocks and basic metabolic processes have various sugars at their hearts. How they arose boils down to two possibilities: either they were produced right here by the most basic, prebiotic processes or they were supplied from interplanetary or interstellar space. All kinds of simple carbon-based compounds turn up in spectral analysis of regions of star formation, or giant molecular clouds: CN, CO, C­2H, H2CO up to 10 or more atoms that make up recognisable compounds such as benzonitrile (C6H5CN). Even a simple amino acid (glycene –CH2NH2COOH) shows up in a few nearby giant molecular clouds. Brought together in close proximity, instead of dispersed through huge volumes of near-vacuum, a riot of abiotic organic chemical reactions could take place. Indeed, complex products of such reactions are abundant in carbonaceous meteorites whose parent asteroids formed within the solar system early in its formation. Some contain a range of amino acids though not, so far, the five bases on which genetics depends: in DNA adenine, cytosine, guanine and thymine (replaced by uracil in RNA). Yet, surprisingly, even simple sugars have remained elusive in both molecular clouds and meteorites.

Artist’s impression of the asteroid belt from which most meteorites are thougtht to originate (Credit: NASA/JPL)

A recent paper has broken through that particular barrier (Furukawa, Y. et al. 2019. Extraterrestrial ribose and other sugars in primitive meteorites. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Online; DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1907169116). Yoshihiro Furukawa and colleagues analysed three carbonaceous chondrites and discovered traces of 4 types of sugars. It seems that sugar compounds have remained elusive because those now detected are at concentrations thousands of times lower than those of amino acids. Contamination by terrestrial sugars that may have entered the meteorites when they slammed into soil is ruled out by their carbon isotope ratios, which are very different from those in living organisms. One of the sugars is ribose, a building block of RNA (DNA needs deoxyribose). Though a small discovery, it has great significance as regards the possibility that the components needed for living processes formed in the early Solar System. Moon formation by giant impact shortly after accretion of the proto-Earth would almost certainly have  destroyed such organic precursors. So, if the Earth’s surface was chemically ‘seeded’ in this way it is more likely to have occurred at a later time, perhaps during the Late Heavy Bombardment 4.1 to 3.8 billion years ago (see: Did mantle chemistry change after the late heavy bombardment? In Earth-logs September 2009)

Any excuse to return to the Moon

Humans first set foot on the Moon 45 years ago, yet by 42 years ago the last lunar astronaut left: by human standards staffed lunar exploration has been ephemeral. Yet for several reasons – romantic and political – once again getting living beings onto other worlds has become an obsession to some, in much the same manner that increasing numbers of countries seem hell-bent in increasing the redundancy of equipment in orbit; redundant because many of the satellites being launched all do much the same thing, especially in the remote sensing field. It’s all a bit like the choice between buying a Ferrari or hiring a perfectly serviceable vehicle when needed – prestige is high on the list of motivators. A new obsession is extraterrestrial mining and some very rich kids on the block are dabbling in that possibility: James Cameron of Aliens and Avatar fame (both films with space mining in the plot); a bunch of Google top dogs; billionaire entrepreneurs and oligarchs with cash to burn. Resource exploitation has also motivated Indian, Russian and Chinese interest in a return to the Moon, at least at an exploratory level.

NASA's proposed Moon colony concept from early...
NASA’s proposed Moon colony concept from early 2001 (image: NASA)

The main prospective targets have been water, as a source of hydrogen and oxygen through electrolysis to make portable rocket fuel, and helium, especially its rare isotope He-3, for use in fusion reactors. Helium is more abundant on the Moon than it is on Earth: only 300 grams of He-3 per year leaks out of the Earth’s depths. On the Moon there may be as much as 50 parts per billion in its dusty regolith cover where it remains supercooled in areas of permanent shadow. But to get a ton of it would require shifting 150 million tons of regolith. A decade ago geologists suggesting that metals might be mined on the Moon – noble metals and rare-earth elements have been mooted (the latter’s export being embargoed by Earth’s main producer China) – would have been laughing stocks, but now they get air time. Yet none of these materials occur on the Moon in the type of ore deposit found on Earth; if they did the anomalous nature of such enrichments on a body devoid of vegetation would have ensured their detection already. Even if there were lunar ore bodies, anyone with a passing familiarity with resource extraction knows just how much waste has to be shifted to make even a super-rich deposit economic on Earth, and that vast amounts of water are deployed in enriching the ‘paying’ metal to levels fit for smelting. For instance, while the rise in gold price since it was detached from a fixed link with paper money in 1971 has enabled very low concentrations to be mined, the methods involve grinding ore in water and then dissolving the gold in sodium cyanide solution, re-precipitating it on carbon made from coconut husks, redissolving and then precipitating the gold again by mixing the ‘liquor’ with zinc dust. Dry ore processing methods – based on density, magnetic and electrical properties – are hardly used in major mining operations nowadays.

The other, and perhaps most important issue with lunar or asteroid mining is that the undoubtedly high costs of whatever beneficiation process is deemed possible must be offset against income from the product; i.e. determined by market price on the home world which would have to be far higher than now. Such a rise in price would work to make currently uneconomic resources here worth mining, and anyone who believes that mining on the Moon would ever be competitive in that capitalist scenario risks being en route to the chuckle farm. Unless, of course, their motive is an exclusivist hobby par excellence and the bragging rights that accompany it – a bit like big game hunting, but the buzz coming from risking their billions rather than their lives.

But it turns out that a refocus on bringing stuff back from the Moon is not confined to floating stock on the financial markets. There are academic efforts to rationalise the Dan Dare spirit. There aren’t many scientific journals with a level of kudos to match the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, the first journal in the world exclusively devoted to science and probably the longest running since it was established in 1665 at the same time as the Royal Society itself. Recently one of its thematic issues dubbed ‘‘Shock and blast: celebrating the centenary of Bertram Hopkinson’s seminal paper of 1914’  (Hopkinson, B. 1914. A method of measuring the pressure produced in the detonation of high explosives or by the impact of bullets. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society A v. 213, p. 437-456) a paper appeared that examines the likelihood of fossils surviving the shocks of a major impact (Burchell, M.J. et al. 2014. Survival of fossils under extreme shocks induced by hypervelocity impacts. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society A v. 372, 20130190 Open Access).

The authors, based at the University of Kent, UK, used a high-velocity air gun to fire quite fragile fossils of diatoms frozen in ice into water at speeds up to 5.34 km s-1. They then looked at solids left in the target to see if any recognisable sign of the fossils remained. Even at the highest energies of impact some diatomaceous material did indeed remain. Their conclusion was that meteorites derived by large impacts into planetary bodies, such as those supposedly from Mars or the Moon, could reasonably be expected to carry remnants of fossils from the bodies, had the impact been into sedimentary rock and that the bodies had supported living organisms that secreted hard parts. My first thought was that the paper was going to resurrect the aged notion of panspermia and a re-examination of the ALH84001 meteorite found in Antarctica claimed in 1996 to contain a Martian fossil (and believed by then US President Bill Clinton). Likewise it might be cited in support of the similar claim, made by panspermia buff Chandra Wickramasinghe, regarding fossils reputedly in a meteorite that fell in Sri Lanka on 29 December 2012: widely regarded as being mistaken. Yet Wickramasinghe’s team reported diatoms in the meteorite!

The Martian meteorite ALH84001 shows microscop...
The Martian meteorite ALH84001 shows microscopic features once suggested to have been created by life. (credit: Wikipedia)

However, Burchell has suggested that their results open up the possibility of meteorites on the Moon that had been blasted there from Earth might preserve terrestrial fossils. Moreover, such meteorites might preserve fossils from early stages in the evolution of life on Earth, since when both rocks and whatever they once contained have been removed by erosion or obliterated by deformation and metamorphism on our active planet. ‘Another reason we should hurry back to the Moon’ says Kieren Torres Howard of New York’s City University…

Asteroid dust said to resolve a conundrum

In September 2005 a Japanese space probe, Hayabusa, twice landed lightly on the small (700 m long) asteroid Itokawa that habitually crosses the orbit of Mars. The plan was to scoop up a substantial amount of its rubbly surface and return it for lab analysis. In the event the main sampling device malfunctioned. The dismayed Hayabusa team were mollified to some extent by the second landing impact fortuitously directing dust particles up to 0.2 mm across into the sampler. After Hayabusa landed safely in Australia on 13 June 2010, the team thankfully recovered 1574 tiny grains. Most were made of single minerals: olivine, pyroxene, feldspar (including 14 alkali feldspar grains), sulfides, chromite, Ca phosphate and iron-nickel alloy. About 450 were silicate mixtures some containing K-bearing halite (NaCl) (Nakamura, T. and 21 others. Itokawa dust particles: a direct link between S-type asteroids and ordinary chondrites. Science, v. 333, p. 1113-1116  – followed by 5 other papers from the Hayabusa team in the same issue). The sample analyses clearly show that Itokawa chemically and mineralogically resembles ordinary LL chondrites that make up most meteorites found on Earth.

Hardly a surprise, then… Yet it was, for Itokawa is an S-type asteroid – the most common – whose spectra do not match those of ordinary chondrite meteorites despite the logic that commonly found meteorites ought to come from the break-up of commonly seen asteroids. S-type asteroids have annoyed astronomers for decades because of their cryptic appearance, and now they are broadly relieved. Any object floating around the inner Solar System for billions of years inevitably undergoes a process for which terrestrial weathering is a metaphor; it is affected by the stream of charged particles that constitutes the solar wind, by bumping other bodies and attracting debris from such collisions. The Itokawa dust particles turn out to have extremely thin veneers of sulfide and metallic blobs on the scale of a few nanometres that are thought to result from condensation of matter vaporised either by tiny impacts or the solar wind. This veneer gives Itokawa and probably other S-type meteorites their irritatingly uniform reddish colour. It strikes me that there is a problem here: all asteroids, no matter what their mineralogy and chemistry, would be subject to the same kind of process and end up with a similar veneer. Itakawa may well be an ordinary chondrite, but what about all the other S-type asteroids?

See also: Kerr, R.A. 2011. Hayabusa gets to the bottom of deceptive asteroid cloaking. Science, v. 333, p. 1081.