Meteoric rise: NMR reflections

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  • Published: Sep 15, 2013
  • Author: David Bradley
  • Channels: NMR Knowledge Base
thumbnail image: Meteoric rise: NMR reflections

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The team reports that they identified a variety of long chain linear and branched polyethers, O-containing aromatic compounds, complex polyether- and ester-containing alkyl molecules, whose number is quite bewildering, the team says.

Solid-state NMR spectroscopy and other techniques have been used to make an inventory of the insoluble organic molecules found in the Sutter's Mill meteorite that may reflect the chemical resources available to the early Earth. Details of the NMR and gas chromatography–mass spectrometric analyses released upon hydrothermal treatment of a sample from the meteorite are reported in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences this month.

There is a growing inventory of organic compounds that have been identified beyond the bounds of our planet. But, whether or not these molecules played a role in the emergence and evolution of life on Earth remains to be seen. Could extraterrestrial matter that reaches the Earth's surface in the form of meteorites provide clues? Now, Sandra Pizzarello, a research professor in Arizona State University's Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, in Tempe, and her colleagues - geologist Lynda Williams, NMR specialist Gregory Holland and graduate student Stephen Davidowski - have made an important discovery regarding the Sutter’s Mill meteorite. This extraterrestrial rock exploded in a blazing fireball over California in 2012 and is known to contain various organic molecules that were not previously seen in any meteorite analysis. The team suggests that there may have been a much greater molecular diversity available to the primordial Earth from which the first self-replicating compounds could emerge and ultimately trigger the start of life.

Fuss on the Mill

The Sutter’s Mill meteor was detected and tracked by Doppler weather radar, which allowed its expedient recovery from the landing site before exposure to the Earth's weather contaminated it, thus providing scientists with the most pristine look yet at the surface of a primitive asteroid. Coincidentally, the discovery site is that of the initial discovery of gold that ignited the 1849 California Gold Rush.

“The analyses of meteorites never cease to surprise you ... and make you wonder,” explains Pizzarello. “This is a meteorite whose organics had been found altered by heat and of little appeal for bio- or pre-biotic chemistry, yet the very Solar System processes that led to its alteration seem also to have brought about novel and complex molecules of definite prebiotic interest such as polyethers," she adds.

Writing in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (USA), Pizzarello and her team describe how they used hydrothermally treated fragments of the meteorite to allow them to detect the compounds of interest released by solid-state NMR spectroscopy and gas chromatography-mass spectrometry. The hydrothermal conditions of the experiments, which also mimic early Earth settings (a proximity to volcanic activity and impact craters), released a complex mixture of oxygen-rich compounds, the probable result of oxidative processes that occurred in the parent body.

Bewildering molecules

The team reports that they identified a variety of long chain linear and branched polyethers, O-containing aromatic compounds, complex polyether- and ester-containing alkyl molecules, whose number is quite bewildering, the team says. "Molecular evolution on the early Earth could have benefited from accretion of carbonaceous meteorites both directly with soluble compounds and, for a more protracted time, through alteration, processing, and release from their insoluble organic materials," the researchers conclude.

"In this line of research you follow the findings of meteorites and you always get surprises," Pizzarello told SpectroscopyNOW. "There is still much that we do not know about extraterrestrial environments and their chemistry, we are gathering the pieces of a huge puzzle and meteorites so far have given the best means. What we hope to achieve is a better understanding of the early Earth and the chemistry that might have lead to prebiotic molecular evolution."

Related Links

Proc Natl Acad Sci (USA) 2013, online: "Processing of meteoritic organic materials as a possible analog of early molecular evolution in planetary environments"

Article by David Bradley

The views represented in this article are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of John Wiley and Sons, Ltd.

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