Nav: Home

Molecular evolution: How the building blocks of life may form in space

April 25, 2018

WASHINGTON, D.C., April 25, 2018 -- In a laboratory experiment that mimics astrophysical conditions, with cryogenic temperatures in an ultrahigh vacuum, scientists used an electron gun to irradiate thin sheets of ice covered in basic molecules of methane, ammonia and carbon dioxide. These simple molecules are ingredients for the building blocks of life. The experiment tested how the combination of electrons and basic matter leads to more complex biomolecule forms -- and perhaps eventually to life forms.

"You just need the right combination of ingredients," author Michael Huels said. "These molecules can combine, they can chemically react, under the right conditions, to form larger molecules which then give rise to the bigger biomolecules we see in cells like components of proteins, RNA or DNA, or phospholipids."

The right conditions, in space, include ionizing radiation. In space, molecules are exposed to UV rays and high-energy radiation including X-rays, gamma rays, stellar and solar wind particles and cosmic rays. They are also exposed to low-energy electrons, or LEEs, produced as a secondary product of the collision between radiation and matter. The authors examined LEEs for a more nuanced understanding of how complex molecules might form.

In their paper, in the Journal of Chemical Physics, from AIP Publishing, the authors exposed multilayer ice composed of carbon dioxide, methane and ammonia to LEEs and then used a type of mass spectrometry called temperature programmed desorption (TPD) to characterize the molecules created by LEEs.

In 2017, using a similar method, these researchers were able to create ethanol, a nonessential molecule, from only two ingredients: methane and oxygen. But these are simple molecules, not nearly as complex as the larger molecules that are the stuff of life. This new experiment has yielded a molecule that is more complex, and is essential for terrestrial life: glycine.

Glycine is an amino acid, made of hydrogen, carbon, nitrogen and oxygen. Showing that LEEs can convert simple molecules into more complex forms illustrates how life's building blocks could have formed in space and then arrived on Earth from material delivered via comet or meteorite impact.

In their experiment, for each 260 electrons of exposure, one molecule of glycine was formed. Seeking to know how realistic this rate of formation was in space, not just in the laboratory, the researchers extrapolated out to determine the probability that a carbon dioxide molecule would encounter both a methane molecule and ammonia molecule and how much radiation they, together, might encounter.

"You have to remember -- in space, there is a lot of time," Huels said. "The idea was to get a feel for the probability: Is this a realistic yield, or is this a quantity that is completely nuts, so low or so high that it doesn't make sense? And we find that it is actually quite realistic for a rate of formation of glycine or similar biomolecules."
-end-
The article, "Glycine formation in CO2:CH4:NH3 ices induced by 0-70 eV electrons," is authored by Sasan Esmaili, Andrew D. Bass, Pierre Cloutier, Léon Sanche and Michael A. Huels. The article appeared in the Journal of Chemical Physics April 24, 2018 (DOI: 10.1063/1.5021596) and it can be accessed at http://aip.scitation.org/doi/full/10.1063/1.5021596.

ABOUT THE JOURNAL

The Journal of Chemical Physics publishes concise and definitive reports of significant research in the methods and applications of chemical physics. See http://jcp.aip.org.

American Institute of Physics

Related Methane Articles:

Microbial fuel cell converts methane to electricity
Transporting methane from gas wellheads to market provides multiple opportunities for this greenhouse gas to leak into the atmosphere.
Methane seeps in the Canadian high Arctic
Cretaceous climate warming led to a significant methane release from the seafloor, indicating potential for similar destabilization of gas hydrates under modern global warming.
Methane emissions from trees
A new study from the University of Delaware is one of the first in the world to show that tree trunks in upland forests actually emit methane rather than store it, representing a new, previously unaccounted source of this powerful greenhouse gas.
Oil production releases more methane than previously thought
Emissions of methane and ethane from oil production have been substantially higher than previously estimated, particularly before 2005.
Bursts of methane may have warmed early Mars
The presence of water on ancient Mars is a paradox.
New method for quantifying methane emissions from manure management
The EU Commision requires Denmark to reduce drastically emissions of greenhouse gases from agriculture.
New 3-D printed polymer can convert methane to methanol
Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory scientists have combined biology and 3-D printing to create the first reactor that can continuously produce methanol from methane at room temperature and pressure.
Arctic Ocean methane does not reach the atmosphere
250 methane flares release the climate gas methane from the seabed and into the Arctic Ocean.
Long-sought methane production mechanism identified
Researchers have identified the mechanism by which bacteria create methane, a potent greenhouse gas.
Retreat of the ice followed by millennia of methane release
Methane was seeping from the seafloor for thousands of years following the retreat of the Barents Sea ice sheet, shows a groundbreaking new study in Nature Communications.

Related Methane Reading:

Methane Production Guide - how to make biogas. Three simple anaerobic digesters
by Richard Jemmett (Author)

Coal Bed Methane: From Prospect to Pipeline
by Pramod Thakur (Editor), Steve Schatzel (Editor), Kashy Aminian (Editor)

Improving Characterization of Anthropogenic Methane Emissions in the United States
by Engineering, and Medicine National Academies of Sciences (Author), Division on Earth and Life Studies (Author), Board on Environmental Studies and Toxicology (Author), Board on Energy and Environmental Systems (Author), Board on Earth Sciences and Resources (Author), Board on Agriculture and Natural Resources (Author), Board on Atmospheric Sciences and Climate (Author), Monitoring, Presentation of Results, and Development of Inventories Committee on Anthropogenic Methane Emissions in the United States: Improving Measurement (Author)

Advanced Reservoir and Production Engineering for Coal Bed Methane
by Pramod Thakur (Author)

Complete Guide to Methane Hydrate Energy: Ice that Burns, Natural Gas Production Potential, Effect on Climate Change, Safety, and the Environment, Federal Research and Development Programs
by U.S. Government (Author), U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) (Author), National Energy Technology Laboratory (NETL) (Author)

Methane: Planning a Digester
by Peter-John Meynell (Author)

The 2019-2024 World Outlook for Coal Bed Methane (CBM)
by Icon Group International (Author)

Methane and Climate Change
by Dave Reay (Editor), Pete Smith (Editor), Andre van Amstel (Editor)

The Rise and Fall of Captain Methane: Autobiography of a Maverick
by Dorcey Alan Wingo (Author)

Methane Hydrates in Quaternary Climate Change: The Clathrate Gun Hypothesis (Special Publications)
by James P. Kennett (Author)

Best Science Podcasts 2018

We have hand picked the best science podcasts for 2018. Sit back and enjoy new science podcasts updated daily from your favorite science news services and scientists.
Now Playing: TED Radio Hour

The Story Behind The Numbers
Is life today better than ever before? Does the data bear that out? This hour, TED speakers explore the stories we tell with numbers — and whether those stories portray the full picture. Guests include psychologist Steven Pinker, economists Tyler Cowen and Michael Green, journalist Hanna Rosin, and environmental activist Paul Gilding.
Now Playing: Science for the People

#487 Knitting in PEARL
This week we're discussing math and things made from yarn. We welcome mathematician Daina Taimina to the show to discuss her book "Crocheting Adventures with Hyperbolic Planes: Tactile Mathematics, Art and Craft for all to Explore", and how making geometric models that people can play with helps teach math. And we speak with research scientist Janelle Shane about her hobby of training neural networks to do things like name colours, come up with Halloween costume ideas, and generate knitting patterns: often with hilarious results. Related links: Crocheting the Hyperbolic Plane by Daina Taimina and David Henderson Daina's Hyperbolic Crochet blog...