How Life Came to Earth – Quantum Mechanical Tunneling Effect Might Play a Role

Serge Krasnokutski

Dr. Serge Krasnokutski studies the formation of biomolecules at low temperature in a vacuum. Credit: Jens Meyer/University of Jena

Research team from Friedrich Schiller University Jena and the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy finds clue to possible extraterrestrial origin of peptides.

Researchers from the Friedrich Schiller University Jena and the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy have discovered a new clue in the search for the origin of life by showing that peptides can form on dust under conditions such as those prevailing in outer space. These molecules, which are one of the basic building blocks of all life, may therefore not have originated on our planet at all, but possibly in cosmic molecular clouds.

Chains of amino acids

All life as we know it consists of the same chemical building blocks. These include peptides, which perform various completely different functions in the body – transporting substances, accelerating reactions, or forming stabilizing scaffolds in cells. Peptides consist of individual amino acids arranged in a specific order. The exact order determines a peptide’s eventual properties.

One of the mysteries surrounding the origin of life is how these adaptable biomolecules came into being. For instance, amino acids, nucleobases, and other sugars discovered in meteoroids suggest that this origin could be alien in nature. However, very specific circumstances that were previously thought to be more likely to exist on Earth are needed for a peptide to be created from individual amino acid molecules.

The first step requires water, while for the second step, there must be no water

“Water plays an important role in the conventional way in which peptides are created,” says Dr. Serge Krasnokutski of the Laboratory Astrophysics and Cluster Physics Group of the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy at the University of Jena. In this process, individual amino acids combine to form a chain. For this to happen, one water molecule must be removed each time. “Our quantum chemical calculations have now shown that the amino acid glycine can be formed through a chemical precursor – called an amino ketene – combining with a water molecule. Put simply: in this case, water must be added for the first reaction step, and water must be removed for the second.”

With this knowledge, the team led by the physicist Krasnokutski has now been able to demonstrate a reaction pathway that can take place under cosmic conditions and does not require water.

“Instead of taking the chemical detour in which amino acids are formed, we wanted to find out whether amino ketene molecules could not be formed instead and combine directly to form peptides,” says Krasnokutski, describing the basic idea behind the work. He adds: “And we did this under the conditions that prevail in cosmic molecular clouds, that is to say on dust particles in a vacuum, where the corresponding chemicals are present in abundance: carbon, ammonia, and carbon monoxide.”

In an ultra-high vacuum chamber, substrates that serve as a model for the surface of dust particles were brought together with carbon, ammonia, and carbon monoxide at about one quadrillionth of normal air pressure and minus 263 degrees Celsius.

“Investigations showed that under these conditions, the peptide polyglycine was formed from the simple chemicals,” Krasnokutski says. “These are therefore chains of the very simple amino acid glycine, and we observed different lengths. The longest specimens consisted of eleven units of the amino acid.”

In this experiment, the German team was also able to detect the suspected amino ketene. “The fact that the reaction can take place at such low temperatures at all is due to the amino ketene molecules being extremely reactive. They combine with each other in an effective polymerization. The product of this is polyglycine.”

Quantum mechanical tunneling effect might play a role

“It was nevertheless surprising to us that the polymerization of amino ketene could happen so easily under such conditions,” says Krasnokutski. “This is because an energy barrier actually has to be overcome for this to happen. However, it may be that we are helped in this by a special effect of quantum mechanics. In this special reaction step, a hydrogen atom changes its place. However, it is so small that, as a quantum particle, it could not overcome the barrier but was simply able to cross it, so to speak, through the tunneling effect.”

Now that it is clear that not only amino acids, but also peptide chains, can be created under cosmic conditions, we may have to look not only to Earth but also more into space when researching the origin of life.

Reference: “A pathway to peptides in space through the condensation of atomic carbon” by S. A. Krasnokutski, K.-J. Chuang, C. Jäger, N. Ueberschaar and Th. Henning, 10 February 2022, Nature Astronomy.
DOI: 10.1038/s41550-021-01577-9

8 Comments on "How Life Came to Earth – Quantum Mechanical Tunneling Effect Might Play a Role"

  1. So, basically, any habitable planet will have lots of it.

    I’m not saying they’re Aliens, but, you know.

  2. I think it is called quantum electron tunnelling, a quantum mechanical effect of a hydrogen electron moving from one molecule to another.

  3. So far, only Genesis chapter 1, correctly covers creation. It’s the best executive summary out there to describe the origins of life. Amino acids getting pushed through worm holes yet still needing specific coding to effect the right sequencing for the building blocks of life couldn’t happen in trillions of years, yet atheistic scientist push this fantasy. All real science points to a designer (God).

  4. I feel as though the JW scope will reveal awesome info. about this subject! Maybe more than some of us want to know!

  5. Interesting.

    Some thoughts and questions.

    1. Where on earth did that first dust particle come from , around which glycine polymer formed from chemicals? Where did the chemicals for the creation of the Glycine polymer come from?

    2. Where did the amino ketene come from?

    Before we try to answer questions about the origin of life,let us get an answer about where Matter came from. What is the phase transition states between energy and matter? Once we know how Matter began then we can take up how the the Carbon , Nitrogen, Oxygen trio with atomic numbers 6,7,8 came to be from elemental hydrogen, helium, Lithium, Beryllium,and Boron viz. Element numbers 1,2,3,4 and 5!😊😊 , And once these were created, how they combined and created and self-organised to form carbon compounds, organic compounds, amino acids , peptides, polymerised further to proteins and learnt how to breathe and allow blood flow and excrete waste matter, developed a neuron system, learnt to co-operate and work together with other subsystems of the human / mammalian ecosystem and get “Life”.

    Statisticians can easily calculate the odds of all these events / coincidences occurring on its own ,based on Chance and laws of probability, and tell us the probability of life emerging via quantum tunnelling or otherwise 😊😊😊!!!

    3 So we need a two faced Janus, which is Hydrophilic on one side and hydrophobic on the other side simultaneously, for the creation of polymeric amino acid chains. Very interesting.

    4.I am honestly having trouble with this complex jigsaw puzzle. I don’t think that even quantum computing with zero, one, AND/OR Zero OR One, AND/OR Zero AND One , will help as alpha waves will flip the increased combination at random.

    We have to solve this without Computers.

    Views expressed are personal and not binding on anyone.

  6. Further to above some more thoughts.

    1. How did Hydrogen emerge? From energy you say ! So where did energy come from?

    2. I always wondered why people said from ” dust to dust, ashes to ashes” as they lowered the “dearly departed body ” into the grave in a wooden coffin. No wonder that smart cookie wanted his ashes to be scattered in space. Maybe he wanted a jump start on next birth.😊😊😊

    Jokes apart. In my personal opinion, setting BHAG targets for us fine , but this is too much. Origin of Life. 😢😢😢

    Views expressed are personal and not binding on anyone.💐💐💐

    The flowers are for the dearly departed.

  7. This is a huge turn for biology as well as particle physics. Its astonishing that scientists can do such research by such simple experiments

  8. I have a telescope and I saw that asteroid

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