New NASA technique to scan space dust for alien life

Last Updated: Tuesday, February 4, 2014 - 21:50

Washington: A new technique to scan extremely small meteorite samples for ingredients of life has been developed by NASA scientists to unravel the mysterious origin of life.

The technique could allow scientists to investigate other small-scale extraterrestrial materials like micrometeorites, interplanetary dust particles and cometary particles, NASA said.

Researchers have analysed carbon-rich meteorites (carbonaceous chondrites) and found amino acids, which are used to make proteins.

Michael Callahan of NASA`s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt and his team recently applied the advanced technology to inspect extremely small meteorite samples for the components of life.

"We found amino acids in a 360 microgramme sample of the Murchison meteorite. This sample size is 1,000 times smaller than the typical sample size used," said Callahan.

Proteins are among the most important molecules in life, used to make structures like hair and skin, and to speed up or regulate chemical reactions.

Researchers also found components used to make DNA, the molecule that carries the instructions for how to build and regulate a living organism, as well as other biologically important molecules like nitrogen heterocycles, sugar-related organic compounds, and compounds found in modern metabolism.
"Despite their small size, these interplanetary dust particles may have provided higher quantities and a steadier supply of extraterrestrial organic material to early Earth," said Callahan.

"Unfortunately, there have been limited studies examining their organic composition, especially with regards to biologically relevant molecules that may have been important for the origin of life, due to the miniscule size of these samples.
Murchison is a well-studied meteorite and researchers got the same results looking at a very small fragment as they did a much larger fragment from the same meteorite, Callahan said.

The team used a nanoflow liquid chromatography instrument to sort the molecules in the meteorite sample, then applied nanoelectrospray ionisation to give the molecules an electric charge and deliver them to a high-resolution mass spectrometer instrument, which identified the molecules based on their mass.

PTI

First Published: Tuesday, February 4, 2014 - 21:50

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