NASA Researchers Make First Discovery of Life's Building Block in Comet
NASA Goddard Space Flight Center--By Bill Steigerwald
NASA scientists have discovered glycine, a fundamental building block of life, in samples of comet Wild 2 returned by NASA's Stardust spacecraft.
"Glycine is an amino acid used by living organisms to make proteins, and this is the first time an amino acid has been found in a comet," said Dr. Jamie Elsila of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. "Our discovery supports the theory that some of life's ingredients formed in space and were delivered to Earth long ago by meteorite and comet impacts."
|Example of one of the many organic particles collected and recovered by the Stardust mission.|
Elsila is the lead author of a paper on this research accepted for publication in the journal Meteoritics and Planetary Science. The research will be presented during the meeting of the American Chemical Society at the Marriott Metro Center in Washington, DC, August 16.
"The discovery of glycine in a comet supports the idea that the fundamental building blocks of life are prevalent in space, and strengthens the argument that life in the universe may be common rather than rare," said Dr. Carl Pilcher, Director of the NASA Astrobiology Institute which co-funded the research.
Proteins are the workhorse molecules of life, used in everything from structures like hair to enzymes, the catalysts that speed up or regulate chemical reactions. Just as the 26 letters of the alphabet are arranged in limitless combinations to make words, life uses 20 different amino acids in a huge variety of arrangements to build millions of different proteins.
Stardust passed through dense gas and dust surrounding the icy nucleus of Wild 2 (pronounced "Vilt-2") on January 2, 2004. As the spacecraft flew through this material, a special collection grid filled with aerogel – a novel sponge-like material that's more than 99 percent empty space – gently captured samples of the comet's gas and dust. The grid was stowed in a capsule which detached from the spacecraft and parachuted to Earth on January 15, 2006. Since then, scientists around the world have been busy analyzing the samples to learn the secrets of comet formation and our solar system's history.