Meteorite, Maybe Older Than the Sun, Shows Chemistry of Ancient Solar System

By Andrew Moseman | February 17, 2010 3:26 pm

MurchisonFour decades later, the Murchison meteorite is still full of surprises. When this extraterrestrial hunk fell to Earth near its namesake town in Australia in 1969, people managed to salvage more than 200 pounds of it. And now a new analysis of the meteorite, published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, shows that it could hold millions of carbon-containing compounds. Researchers say the findings provide insight into the complex chemistry present when the chunk of space-rock formed, back when our solar system was young.

Back in 1969, researchers found amino acids and many other molecules in the carbon-rich rock.  Many researchers have analyzed the chondritic meteorite for amino acids and other possible precursors to life, because some theories hold that life on Earth began with the delivery of prebiotic organic compounds from space via asteroids or comets [Scientific American]. But scanning techniques have advanced since then, so the new team used tools like ultra-high-resolution mass spectrometry to take a fresh look at the meteorite.

In the tiny sample they crushed to study, the team turned up at least 14,000 unique organic (carbon-containing) compounds. They say that is actually conservative guess; the somewhat limited scope of their tool could have missed some, and the true number could be as high as 50,000. And because each collection of atoms can be arranged in numerous ways, the authors estimate that there may be millions of distinct organic compounds in the meteorite [Scientific American].

Not only is Murchison rich in organic compounds, it’s old. Scientists believe the Murchison meteorite could have originated before the Sun was formed, 4.65 billion years ago. The researchers say it probably passed through primordial clouds in the early Solar System, picking up organic chemicals [BBC News]. As a result, the researchers say the meteorite could have something to say about the origin of life and our solar system as it continues to let go of its secrets. It was only two years ago, after all, that scientists confirmed that the presence of subunits of DNA and RNA on Murchison were genuine, and not the result of soil contamination.

Related Content:
80beats: Scientists Pick Up the Pieces (Literally) of an Asteroid Spotted Last October (of ’08)
80beats: Incoming Asteroid Burned Up in Earth’s Atmosphere Right on Time
DISCOVER: Confirmed: 1969 Meteorite Brought Genetic Building Blocks From Space

Image: Wikimedia Commons

  • Femme Fatale

    I know it doesn’t add anything to the article, but this is just so freaking cool! It’s hard to fathom anything even 10,000 years ago, let alone more than 4 billion years!

  • mymuse

    imagine the possibilities!
    if an asteroid or comet brought these subunits of dna and rna to earth, what are the possibilities of there being life in other parts of the solar system or the universe? :)
    this is so cool!

  • fatkid

    Crazy to think of all the life kicked up in the dust of stars. With the Pandoras box chock full of compounds in meteorites, wonder if prions and viruses came in her box, to Earth.

  • Ian

    Even so, but is 4.5 billion years long enough to create something as complicated and information-rich as DNA and RNA from “uracil, a nucleobase found in RNA, and xanthine, an intermediate in the synthesis of DNA and RNA”?

  • Zoe

    The imagination blurs at all the potential data that could be found in one crumbled sample of the rock. Millions of GB’s of data, and it’s all tucked away in a stone older than the sun. Tell me a great sci-fi story can’t be found in something like that? ^_^ Heck it’s a fascinating non-fiction article by itself.

  • Bear

    Message in a bottle…..boggles the mind.

  • Stan the man

    #3 Fatkid said “came in her box”!! HA! Who says science isn’t fun?

  • The Baldchemist

    All that time to make people like George Bush and those behind The Central banking systems. Send it back!
    But how fabulous. Now let’s hope that the research shows us more than theories.

  • Hank

    Of course there is life on other planets. There is no way in the infinite size of the Universe could Earth be the only planet with life on it. I suspect that is life on Titan and other moons already. Why we haven’t gone there is completely beyond me. I’m guessing the mission to Mars are test drives in space travel as it’s the easiest and closest to land on safely. They should just go there and be done with it. Nothing really stopping us.

    It’s not really surprising that a rock from outer space contains things like this. I’m surprised we haven’t discovered it before. The whole planet is in for a wake-up call in the next 50 years as we travel to other planets, discover life, develop new and better tools for observing our surroundings, to larger telescopes to better microscopes and ways of analysing alien materials. In 50 years time (probably less) there will be no doubt that we are not the only planet in the Universe to support life.

  • k

    Could be the bathroom/garbage dump before activating the FTL drive.


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