Gamma Rays and Meteorites: The Unlikely Duo That May Have Sparked Life on Earth

Fiery Meteorite Earth

Scientists are uncertain about the origins of life on Earth, but one hypothesis is that meteorites brought amino acids, the building blocks of life, to the planet. Researchers have found that amino acids could have formed in early meteorites due to reactions within the space rocks caused by gamma rays.

Even as detailed images of distant galaxies from the James Webb Space Telescope show us more of the greater universe, scientists still disagree about how life began here on Earth. One hypothesis is that meteorites delivered amino acids — life’s building blocks — to our planet. Now, researchers reporting in the journal ACS Central Science have experimentally shown that amino acids could have formed in these early meteorites from reactions driven by gamma rays produced inside the space rocks.

Ever since Earth was a newly formed, sterile planet, meteorites have been hurtling through the atmosphere at high speeds toward its surface. If the initial space debris had included carbonaceous chondrites — a class of meteorite whose members contain significant amounts of water and small molecules, such as amino acids — then it could have contributed to the evolution of life on Earth. However, the source of amino acids in meteorites has been hard to pinpoint.

In previous lab experiments, Yoko Kebukawa and colleagues showed that reactions between simple molecules, such as ammonia and formaldehyde, can synthesize amino acids and other macromolecules, but liquid water and heat are required. Radioactive elements, such as aluminum-26 (26Al) — which is known to have existed in early carbonaceous chondrites — release gamma rays, a form of high-energy radiation, when they decay. This process could have provided the heat needed to make biomolecules. So, Kebukawa and a new team wanted to see whether radiation could have contributed to the formation of amino acids in early meteorites.

The researchers dissolved formaldehyde and ammonia in water, sealed the solution in glass tubes, and then irradiated the tubes with high-energy gamma rays produced from the decay of cobalt-60. They found that the production of α-amino acids, such as alanine, glycine, α-aminobutyric acid and glutamic acid, and β-amino acids, such as β-alanine and β-aminoisobutyric acid, rose in the irradiated solutions as the total gamma-ray dose increased.

Based on these results and the expected gamma-ray dose from the decay of 26Al in meteorites, the researchers estimated that it would have taken between 1,000 and 100,000 years to produce the amount of alanine and β-alanine found in the Murchison meteorite, which landed in Australia in 1969. This study provides evidence that gamma ray-catalyzed reactions can produce amino acids, possibly contributing to the origin of life on Earth, the researchers say.

Reference: “Gamma-Ray-Induced Amino Acid Formation in Aqueous Small Bodies in the Early Solar System” by Yoko Kebukawa, Shinya Asano, Atsushi Tani, Isao Yoda and Kensei Kobayashi, 7 December 2022, ACS Central Science.
DOI: 10.1021/acscentsci.2c00588

The authors acknowledge funding from the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science KAKENHI.

4 Comments on "Gamma Rays and Meteorites: The Unlikely Duo That May Have Sparked Life on Earth"

  1. Meteorites and gamma rays, an absurd natural phenomenon which supposedly replaces a supernatural God. Might test out that theory in the laboratory, right geniuses?

  2. So have they made life out of that yet as they know conditions they think were needed…..

    And 100 to 100,000 years for levels in that space rock to reach the amounts. But um universe and those rocks are far older than that and molecules for life were here long before that.

    Unless they missed the rapid formation and complete destruction of a planet or something…. That Rock should have way more in it then right. Being 7 billion years old….

    Interesting to. As our observance of things literally creates new information that didn’t exist before. In a universe where stuff can’t be created or destroyed.

    On top of more and more things that have star level mass but can outshine the observable universe as they give off more energy than the sun in it’s whole life but in a fraction of a second…. Maybe warnings from God as in the Bible it tells to watch the sky for signs, maybe God knew we would have telescopes to see the radiation…. Kinda like how Enoch 2000+ years ago somehow knew we would be able to watch people live as things happen when he talks about the end days…. As people back then couldn’t even dream of what we have now that allows such things….

  3. aims satellite collector dish to power solar system internet from the moon and earth.

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