NASA recently made an incredible discovery on meteorites that are billions of years old, sugars essential to life.
The team from NASA and Tohoku University, which published their research in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, used novel methods to detect sugars in the meteorites previously not found.
Meteorites, which often are derived from asteroids bombarded early Earth, leading researchers to question whether these meteorites introduced the first sugars to Earth and thus an essential life-forming ingredient.
Using a novel extraction method of hydrochloric acid and water, the team detected ribose, arabinose, xylose, and lyxose from the meteorites.
Ribose is an especially interesting and exciting find as it is a core ingredient of RNA (ribonucleic acid), a building block of life on Earth. RNA acts as the messenger taking instructions from the DNA and implementing them by building necessary proteins.
“The research provides the first direct evidence of ribose in space and the delivery of the sugar to Earth,” said lead author Yoshihiro Furukawa from Tohoku University in the NASA press release. “The extraterrestrial sugar might have contributed to the formation of RNA on the prebiotic Earth which possibly led to the origin of life.”
The discovery of Ribose in meteorites adds to the discovery of amino acids and nucleobases. These combined provide the ingredients to develop life, suggesting that all the ingredients for life could have been brought extraterrestrially.
Researchers believe that while DNA is attributed as the blueprint for life, that RNA evolved first and this find supports that idea. Since RNA molecules can do things DNA molecules can’t, such as replicating itself without any other molecules, it was likely the powerhouse for developing life as we know it on Earth.
The team looked into whether the meteorites could have been contaminated with sugars from Earth. However, after extensive investigation involving isotopic analysis the team believes these sugar molecules are, in fact, extraterrestrial. This is because the meteorite sugars were enriched in 13C, a heavier isotope of carbon that is less abundant and less preferred isotopically on Earth.
The team plans to continue to analyze the sugars found in the meteorites, specifically looking at whether the sugars show left-handed or right-handedness.