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Cometary collisions as source of life on Earth


Comets contain elements such as water, ammonia, methanol and carbon dioxide that could have supplied the raw materials, in which upon impact on early Earth would have yielded an abundant supply of energy to produce amino acids and jump start life.

In a research that appeared on September 15 at Nature Geoscience journal, a group of international scientists including a Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory researcher have confirmed that life really could have come from out of this world. This is the first experimental confirmation of what LLNL scientist Nir Goldman first predicted in 2010 and again in 2013 using computer simulations performed on LLNL's supercomputers, including Rzcereal and Aztec. 

The finding comes after a team “shock compressed” an icy slush similar in composition to that found on comets, which are sometimes called “dirty snowballs” because they are a mixture of ice and rock. The compression, which researchers say is similar in intensity to comets hitting the Earth, generated amino acids – considered the basic bits of life.

“Our work shows that the basic building blocks of life can be assembled anywhere in the Solar System and perhaps beyond,” stated Zita Martins, a co-author of the paper who is with Imperial College London’s department of Earth science and engineering.

“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.”

Whether life arose on Earth, or was imported from other locations in the Solar System or universe, has been a hot-button topic for decades. Learning the answer not only has implications for our own planet, but also for understanding how likely it is that life exists in other Solar System planets and moons — not to mention moons or planets in other star systems.

The new experiment — which the researchers say uncovers evidence of a “cosmic factory” process for starting life — saw the team at the University of Kent and the Imperial College using a gas gun to send a projectile into an ice combination similar to what one would find a comet. After the impact, the researchers saw amino acids forming.

The work builds on research initially done by Nir Goldman who predicted the results based on simulations in the laboratory’s supercomputer. Goldman found that comets could have imported life’s building blocks (ammonia, methanol, carbon dioxide and water). Then, as they smashed into Earth, the energy produced could be enough to jump-start life.

The building blocks of proteins are molecules called amino acids. Most types of amino acids can exist in two different forms, one that is ‘left-handed’ and the other as ‘right-handed.’

“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,” stated Mark Price, a co-author and physicist from the University of Kent.

“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.”

Sources: Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, The Spaceguard Centre

Featured image: LLNL

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  1. With all due respect. I have a hard time believing all of the diverse life found on planet earth magically formed from some primordial ooze or "dirty snowballs", then evolved and managed to survive several cataclysmic global events over the history of this planet.

  2. Amazing discovery! The question now becomes, is this newly discovered phenomenon simply a component of the life process initiating creation? Intelligent life on our Planet earth continuously it seems, strive primitively to debunk Creationism! The question will also continuously erupt: "Which came first, – the chicken or the egg?"

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