Icy molecules a clue to our origins
Equipment at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, right, mimics the extremely cold temperatures at the edge of a solar system.
September 24th, 2012
12:26 PM ET

Icy molecules a clue to our origins

Scientists think that water and organic molecules come together in the coldest places in space to begin the chemical reactions necessary for organics to evolve into prebiotic molecules - molecules that are precursors of life. Ice and organics could have hitched a ride to Earth on comets and asteroids, where they could have formed the building blocks of life as we know it.

Researchers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, are trying to better understand that process, and how life may have formed on Earth, by firing lasers at icy carbon-laden molecules in a lab.

Principal scientist Murthy Gudipati explained to CNN by e-mail: "In the cycle of formation, evolution, and death of stars, two key components of life (as we know of it): water and organic matter, evolve intimately with the third component energy (radiation) at every stage of this cycle - even at the coldest regions of the universe."

Gudipati and his team are studying polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, known as PAHs. On Earth, you might find these as air pollutants from engine exhaust, or in barbecue pits or other places where combustion occurs; in space, they're found in comets and asteroids, and swirling around stars.

"We were surprised to see organic chemistry brewing up on ice, at these very cold temperatures in our lab, " Gudipati stated in a release from JPL.

Those very cold temperatures? About 450 degrees below zero Fahrenheit, cold enough to mimic the cold of space. Then the researchers hit the PAHs - the organic particles - with a laser, in order to see the results of the chemical reaction in that environment.

The study revealed that it's possible for organic materials to start the reactions they must go through to become prebiotic, while still frozen. The PAHs incorporated hydrogen atoms into their molecular structures and lost their circular bonds - in short, they became more complex organic molecules.

So what's special about that? These are the types of reactions and changes required for simple organic molecules to form amino acids, the building blocks of proteins, and nucleotides, required to form DNA. But there are some missing steps still to be discovered to explain how these particles could go from being ice and organic molecules to life.

The results of the study, conducted by Gudipati and his colleague Rui Yang at JPL, were published recently in The Astrophysical Journal Letters.

Gudipati told CNN, "The next step is to understand how, from simple organics, the complex prebiotic molecules evolve in these ices as the ice particles make their journey from the interstellar medium to form new stars, solar systems, comets, asteroids, and eventually Earth-like bodies."

He concluded, "This is one way looking into our past - how life evolved on Earth, or looking into the future - how life could evolve on other solar systems."

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Filed under: Discoveries • On Earth
soundoff (45 Responses)
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    February 2, 2013 at 6:47 am |
  2. Ed M

    Bonding by gravity and chemical attraction tends to organize elements.

    That collisions, radiations,super- nova heat, et a,l could stimulate pre-organic seems reasonable.

    Morphological influences (shaping energies) co-exist with space and matter.

    And, in the microscopic "reassembling" -due to the existing forces that hit and shape (and re-shape) matter atomically and molecularly- the building blocks of Life appear more and more likely an outcome in this stirred stew of Space and Matter and abysmal stretches of Time

    September 30, 2012 at 12:36 pm |
  3. Ed M

    Bonding by gravity and chemical attraction tends to organize elements.

    That collisions, radiations,super- nova heat, et a,l could stimulate pre-organic seems reasonable.

    Morphological influences (shaping energies) co-exist with space and matter.

    And, in the microscopic "reassembling" -due to the existing forces that hit and "shape" (and re-shape) matter atomically and molecularly- the building blocks of Life appear more and more likely an outcome in this stirred stew of Space and Matter and abysmal stretches of Time

    September 30, 2012 at 12:36 pm |
  4. Chris


    That's where a little thing called adaptation – you know, the short form of EVOLUTION – comes into play. As the primordial organism is exposed to it's surroundings, it will change based upon the needs required. Certain traits are exaggerated, others are minimized, to meet requirements.

    Let that roll on for about 4 1/2 billion years, and you have a cell as they appear today.


    September 29, 2012 at 2:48 pm |
  5. Hollywood

    For me it only proves that God and science do not have to be mutually exclusive.

    September 27, 2012 at 3:53 am |
    • UncleBenny

      For me, this is further evidence that God is unnecessary as an explanation for anything.

      November 1, 2012 at 6:28 am |
  6. Annie V.

    The only thing that I find difficult to embrace is not the formation of life (no matter what the occurrence) but how is it that we have 'consciousness'; not instinct but a profound awareness of existence. We deliberate everything, including the meaning of life; why are we here; are there other dimensions? etc etc Animals don't do that.

    September 26, 2012 at 7:29 pm |
    • WFC

      Uh, we are animals. Consciousness is just another aspect of evolution.

      September 27, 2012 at 5:42 pm |
    • Dustin.Goldsen@yahoo.com

      Our larger brain capacity has developed the ability to think in the abstract. We can generalize and use that ability to solve problems. We do this in addition to the other types of thought other animals have such as instinct, motor control, emotions, etc.

      September 28, 2012 at 5:30 pm |
    • Brian

      Agreed, though ANY conscious experience, including like perception and emotion, is mysterious (in addition to, as you mentioned, profound thought). Keep in mind that while "other" animals (humans are animals, btw) may lack our higher faculties and be incapable of such thought (as are retarded people, btw, who are nonetheless human), it is reasonable to accept that "other animals" are conscious and experiential beings as the rest of us and that this mystery manifests in them as well. Science (neurobiology in particular) can but "correlate" neural activity with consciousness; it does not and cannot "explain" it (nor does it profess to).

      October 14, 2012 at 7:06 am |
  7. sumday

    I posse this question/challenge to all. In the past decade humans have engineered goats to produce milk with spider silk in it, engineered cats to have eyes that glow under fluoresces, genetically modified many plant crops (GMO’s), ect. My challenge is to prove humans did this without using knowledge of the experiment as validation. IE take these modified specimens and apply the current theory of evolution model to these species that we know we modified and scientifically show that these modifications were in fact done artificially and not naturally. IE the goat escapes from the lab, makes it’s way to Europe where it is caught by a scientist who studies it and finds the modifications in the goats DNA- now how could that scientist prove the goat was modified by man and didn’t natural evolved that way? If there is no way to tell what DNA humans have modified vs naturally occurring then how can we be sure that another intelligent life didn’t modify dna past? That is the problem I find with evolution- we know dna can be modified- we have done it ourselves- yet the current theory does not allow for that possibility to be considered or even have a way to test if had occurred. The only way we could show that man modified an organism is to have records of the experiment, but suppose all those records were lost how could the next generation know/prove that our generation created the goat with spider silk milk instead of it naturally evolving that way?

    September 26, 2012 at 3:52 pm |
    • Magic Jew

      evolution? impossible

      god did it

      September 26, 2012 at 5:43 pm |
      • Dustin.Goldsen@yahoo.com

        And God evolved somehow? Or a higher form created Him?

        September 28, 2012 at 5:31 pm |
      • UncleBenny

        Evolution? Fact. Get over it. The only argument is over the mechanisms. Natural selection is probably not the primary driver, as Darwin thought. Darwin knew nothing of genes or mitochondrial DNA, and more discoveries await.

        November 1, 2012 at 6:34 am |
    • mike

      You should take some science courses and learn the answer to these questions you have. It can't hurt.

      September 29, 2012 at 9:44 am |
  8. Rick-O

    I see the universe as a vast finite state automaton. Initial conditions were such that after many iterations the components are arranged as we see them. One might argue about the probability of such initial conditions and the origen of the rules of the game. But if there are infinitely many universes, one would expect to see every possible variation repeated infinitely many times. Now we might ask why is there something rather than nothing? But maybe "nothing" isn't really an alternative. Being is. Existence exists. And every possible form and variation must be represented. That principle is actually called The Plenitude of Being and I think it has a scholastic origen. So what's the problem?

    September 25, 2012 at 3:07 pm |
  9. rgs001

    My hope is that in my lifetime an extraordinary student with superior intelligence, to mine or the rest of the people commenting, will find and prove the mechanisms that can generate life. My sense is this person(s) will need an extensive and deep understanding of both biochemisrty and quantum mechanics. I do not have a degree in either subject, but I truely believe "quantum entanglement" and the Higgs field's ability make particles sticky play a significant role in turning icy-carbon-bio-goo into a protoism thingy. Sorry for the technical jargon.

    September 24, 2012 at 11:07 pm |
  10. allynom

    "...where they could have formed the building blocks of life as we know it."

    Why is it necessary to add the four words "as we know it" every time the origin of life is discussed? The subject of this article is specifically the origin of life on Earth. What would be the point of considering the origin of life as we don't know it?

    September 24, 2012 at 10:30 pm |
  11. David

    Why do religious people always get so defensive every time evidence supporting evolution is discovered? If they truly were sure that they were correct, would they not simply smile and ignore the waste of time scientists are devoting to studying evolution? Instead, they try to get laws passed forcing creationism on our schools, they criticize scientists for their research findings, etc.

    Always ask yourself, if someone has to sell you a product, just how good is the product? If it really is good, it sells itself.

    September 24, 2012 at 9:27 pm |
    • Kel

      Evolution conflicts with the ardently religious because it contradicts many of their beliefs (Adam and Eve, a young earth, humans have always existed as they do now, etc.) They feel threatened or are afraid of changing what they believe, because that would be admitting they were wrong and possibly lead to other doubts. Many people are adverse to critical thinking. It's much easier to believe what you want to believe and ignore or deny anything that conflicts with your current beliefs. In short, people are lazy.

      September 25, 2012 at 1:01 pm |
    • Miriam

      Please, give it a rest... not all religious people are fundamentalist, deny evolution or are unacquainted with the sciences – some actually work in them and do good research. They just do not conflate the scientific process with ideologies like Materialism or Scientism, which are not science itself but conflate the scientific method with a favored philosophy of their adherents. Only those who are themselves insecure or are misinformed need this sort of primitive superiority – "gee we are so smart and those other people are stupid because they do not agree with us" – despite their accomplishments , advanced degrees and successful, kind and balanced lives.

      October 1, 2012 at 10:32 am |
  12. jason

    yes cells are way to complex so i guess that means it would have had to have been zeus who created the world 5000 years ago in a week and then gave us his only son , thats the answer most people want to hear something simple they can understand

    September 24, 2012 at 9:14 pm |
  13. Goddog

    kls817... If you have a degree in Biochemisrty I feel bad for you that you wasted so much time in your life. You sound more like a creationist mole. "Admittedly pathetic"? Are the standing around chanting or something? Why not say, admittedly unsecessful? "Spontaneously appeared"? Poof! you mean like that? Are you serious?

    "The complexity of even the simplest cell is so immense that it is extremely unlikely that like could come into existence even once among the vastness of time and space in the universe."... I call BS on you. If you really were to have a degree in Biochemistry I doubt that you would make such a nonsensicle statement such as that.

    September 24, 2012 at 6:07 pm |
    • Alex

      What is readily apparent cannot be dismissed as nonsensical. The chasm between primitive organic chemicals and an actual self-replicating cell is so wide and far-apart that bridging the gap with current technology is tantamount to trying to broad jump the Grand Canyon with just a "running" start. Any true adherent of the scientific method must also guard so that anti-religious bias does not skew objectivity.

      September 25, 2012 at 12:15 am |
      • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

        Poor logic. You might as well say bald is a hair color. Considering a supernatural explanation when no such thing in itself has any supporting evidence is the bias. Evolution, as flawed as it is has a great deal of supporting evidence.

        September 25, 2012 at 3:10 pm |
    • sumday

      why bc all biochemist must believe the way you do? Tell you what we know we have genetically modified organisms- we have created goats whose milk produce spider silk, engineered corn to produce pesticides, GMO’s ect. My challenge to you is this- simply prove man did this without the benefit of knowing we did it. IE take the scientific method and prove that these engineered species were done by man and did not naturally occur as evolution says it would have. There in lies your problem- we have proven that an intelligent species can create and manipulate dna, but under the current evolution model we exclude the possibility that other intelligent life may have done the same thing to life on this planet. In my challenge you could never prove that man altered these species but instead would be searching for some natural process that does it. So if you can’t scientifically prove that man created these GMO’s, even though we know we did do it, why are you so sure your evolution model is right?

      September 26, 2012 at 3:00 pm |
  14. James D.

    Fascinating to say the least,You could almost conclude that organic life on Planet Earth was the result of a "Divine Accident"

    September 24, 2012 at 5:41 pm |
    • Starman

      Can a divinity make a mistake?

      September 25, 2012 at 12:59 pm |
      • James D.

        Only if it chooses to.

        September 25, 2012 at 7:00 pm |
      • UncleBenny

        Judging from the human race, it would seem so.

        November 1, 2012 at 6:31 am |
  15. Indeed

    "But there are some missing steps still to be discovered to explain how these particles could go from being ice and organic molecules to life."

    Understatement of the year.

    September 24, 2012 at 2:26 pm |
    • cognosium

      Damn right, there, Indeed!
      Not to mention that it has been abundantly clear that the existence if pre-biotic molecules (we must include such things as water and CO2 in this category , of course) has been known for a long time. So in addition to understatement we have gross hype.

      The very tricky problem of abiogenesis, particularly the formation of the first cell, is handled very well in Nick Lane's excellent book "Life Ascending" which is in most public library systems. Among the hypotheses discussed therein, the alkaline vent model does provide a plausible transition from bound to free-living cellularity.

      A much broader evolutionary model which extends from stellar nucleosynthesis to the current development of technlogy is outlined in my own book ""The Goldilocks Effect: What Has Serendipity Ever Done For Us?" , a free download in e-book formats from the "Unusual Perspectives" website.

      September 24, 2012 at 5:33 pm |
    • kls817

      Exactly. I have a degree in biochemistry and am interested in the (admittedly pathetic) attempts by researchers to determine how life could have spontaneously appeared. The complexity of even the simplest cell is so immense that it is extremely unlikely that like could come into existence even once among the vastness of time and space in the universe.

      September 24, 2012 at 5:34 pm |
      • weezer

        KLS817 - I have a degree in biochem, as well, and at my university they encouraged a little expanded thought. If you paid attention in class you would have learned several possible scenarios for cellular component generation from complex organic molecules. I guess Oral Roberts U didn't get into those topics while you were there.

        September 25, 2012 at 11:17 am |
      • odonmayoa@aol.com

        Hello, Did you respond to my comment, "Divine Accident" ?????? Jim

        September 25, 2012 at 12:03 pm |
      • Sir Studley Smugley

        The vastness of the Universe and all the energy and atoms in it, not only would complex organic molecules be possible, but they would be inevitable. 14 billion years of random atomic connections is plenty of time for life to take hold.

        September 25, 2012 at 1:34 pm |
      • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

        @ kls817
        If you had a degree in biochem, I’d hope you understood the concept does not involved spontaneous development.

        September 25, 2012 at 3:36 pm |
    • Kel

      But I think it's better to say "we don't know" than to make up an explanation (i.e. "it happened by magic" or "God did it").

      September 25, 2012 at 1:03 pm |
    • Magic Jew

      dunno guess god musta dun it

      September 26, 2012 at 5:43 pm |
      • UncleBenny

        You should have stopped at "dunno."

        November 1, 2012 at 6:35 am |


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