Synthesis of amino acids by impacts of comets, and other things related with life’s origin

A few weeks ago I saw the following headline in “Recercat” (the electronic newsletter of research in Catalonia): “Científics descobreixen com es formen les molècules bàsiques de la vida“, that is, “Scientists discover how the basic molecules of life are made”. Oops what a heading ! I was very surprised, of course, because I have always been passionate for this subject of life’s origin. So, I quickly read it, and looked for the original article .

Well, once seen in detail, it is clear that the heading is very, very exaggerated, as supposed at first glance. Before discussing why I think it is exaggerated, I want to mention another detail of this headline that I think is superflous: Why the word “scientists” ?  Whoelse might be working on the study of the formation of the basic molecules of life besides scientists ? Politicians perhaps? or economists or maybe the bishops ? It is clear that must be scientists and therefore it is no need to say it. The heading would be enough like this: “It has been discovered how…. ” . Or else, it could tell where scientists are from: “English scientists, or American, or Japanese, have discovered … “.

Well, going to the specific discovery, and as Recercat itself summarizes, some Americans and British researchers (Martins et al. 2013) have published in Nature Geoscience their laboratory work, where they simulated the impact of comets on the surface of a planet, shooting a projectile with a compressed air pistol at speeds of 7 km/s (25,000 km/h). They have seen that by the impact and the heat generated, amino acids are synthesized from water, CO2 and ammonia. This is what they call “shock synthesis”. Among others, the amino acids detected were glycine, D-alanine, L-alanine, amino isobutyric acid, isovaline, norvaline and other precursors of amino acids, both isomers D and L. The amounts detected were between nanograms and one microgram.

This synthesis process shows that a simple mechanism, such as the impact of comets on the surface of a rocky planet, can transform basic inorganic molecules to more complex organic molecules such as amino acids, which are the monomers of proteins, basic constituents of all living beings. And therefore, this shock synthesis could have been a step in the appearance of terrestrial life.

Now, is this the first work to demonstrate the possible formation of basic molecules of life ? Well, absolutely not ! This work has its value but does not deserve this headline so exaggerated.

So, let’s briefly review what is already known, since more than 50 years, many different researchers have worked on this topic and have been discovering aspects that reinforce the scientific hypotheses of abiogenesis. This, also known as biopoesis, is the natural process by which living organisms originated on earth from simple molecules about 3,700 million years ago.

Biopoesis, the process of emergence of living beings on Earth

This process of biopoesis necessarily involved several steps:

1) The formation and appearance of basic organic molecules of living beings, it is, the monomers such as amino acids, monosaccharides, fatty acids and nitrogenous bases.

2) From the above monomers, the formation of biogenic macromolecules, it is, polysaccharides, polypeptides, lipoids and others, by polymerization, probably on the surface of inorganic substrates such as clay or iron minerals.

3) And the formation of the protobionts, the precursors of first cells, from macromolecules. This key step, the most difficult to prove, was probably linked to the parallel acquisition of the three basic properties of living beings: i) a structure envelope (the membrane) of lipidic consistency; ii) some reactions transforming nutrients and energy (rudimentary metabolism); and iii) the ability of transfering characteristics to the offspring (hereditary mechanism) with an information-carrying molecule, probably RNA.

By the moment I will leave the steps 2 and 3, maybe for discussing in a future post, and I will focus on the first one, related to the mentioned article of Martins et al. (2013). This formation and appearance of compounds in the early Earth may have been by three mechanisms: a) in situ production, b) contributions from abroad: c) synthesis due to impacts.

These three categories of mechanisms were already raised as an inventory of the possible origins of life in 1992 in an article of Nature by Christopher Chyba and Carl Sagan, the famous pioneer of exobiology and science writer, very known by the extraordinary TV series Cosmos, and author of the phrase “We are stardust“. Coincidentally, he was the first husband of Lynn Margulis, who spread the endosymbiotic theory of the bacterial origin of mitochondria and chloroplasts.

Endogenous synthesis of organic compounds on the primitive Earth

Well, as I said, it has been demonstrating since many years the possibility of the formation of organic molecules in situ, id est, endogenous synthesis in the primitive Earth, without external inputs. The Oparin’s hypothesis that the reducing anaerobic conditions of the early atmosphere, along with solar energy, should favoured the synthesis of organic molecules forming the “prebiotic soup”, was demonstrated as possible by the known experiments of Miller and Urey:

In 1952, the graduate student Stanley Miller with his professor Harold Urey introduced a mixture of water, hydrogen, methane and ammonia in a cyclical container, where electrical sparks were applied. A week later, when analyzing the components, they found that 15% of the carbon coming from methane had been transformed in various organic compounds, including 5 amino acids, both D-and L-.

1 aqa_chem_miller-urey

Schema of the experiments of Miller and Urey. From GCSE-Bitesize (BBC).

Recently (Parker et al 2011) the tubes with the extracts of original Miller- Urey experiments have been analyzed again with current sophisticated analytical techniques and equipment, and many more compounds that the found originally in the 1950s have been discovered, in particular 23 other amino acids.

The synthesis of these organic molecules in the early Earth was probably facilitated by energy sources of the atmospheric activity such as electrical discharges that were used by Miller and Urey experiments, but there were other possibilities, such as the sunlight, with more UV radiation than at present (there was no ozone layer since it was formed later, from oxygen), and also more volcanic activity and radioactivity in a younger Earth, and impacts of meteorites and comets, which is related to the mentioned work of Martins et al. (2013).

Another important contribution in the search for prebiotic organic synthesis was the demonstration made by Joan Oró (born in Lleida, Catalonia) working at NASA (Oró 1961) that adenine can be synthesized heating ammonium cyanide solutions. Similarly, recently it has been demonstrated the synthesis of pyrimidines (cytosine and uracil), adenine and triazines (other nitrogenous bases) from urea by freeze-thaw cycles and electric shocks (Menor-Salván et al. 2007).

2 adenina Oró

As demonstrated by Joan Oró, adenine can be synthesized from 5 molecules of hydrogen cyanide. Adenine is a key molecule for life, since it is part of nucleic acids and ATP.

Contribution of organic molecules by extraterrestrial objects

In addition to the in situ synthesis of organic compounds in the primitive Earth, they could also have come from outside. The contribution of organic molecules by extraterrestrial objects, comets or meteorites or other, it is increasingly more evident scientifically. Recent studies suggest that the so-called massive bombing that took place 3.5 billion years ago provided an amount of organic compounds comparable to those produced in situ.

3 Lluvia-de-meteoritos

Simulation of meteor shower similar to this of the early Earth. From AZ-Revista de Educación y Cultura

It has been shown that organic compounds are relatively common in extraterrestrial space, especially in the outer solar system where volatile compounds are not evaporated by solar heat. Many comets have an outer layer of a material with appearance of tar, which contains organic compounds formed by reactions caused by radiation, especially UV. Apart from that long ago they had been detected by telescope spectrography, a few years ago it has been identified in situ the amino acid glycine in comet Wild -2 in samples taken by NASA’s Stardust spacecraft (Dolmetsch 2006) .

The Murchison meteorite, about 100 kg, fell in Australia in 1969 and broke in several fragments that have been well studied. This meteorite is of type carbonaceous chondrites, which are rich in carbon, and indeed contains amino acids, both common (glycine, alanine and glutamic acid) as the most unusual (isovaline, pseudoleucine), with concentrations up to 60 ppm (Kvenvolden et al. 1970). It also contains aromatic and aliphatic hydrocarbons, alcohols and other organic compounds such as carboxylic acids and fullerenes.

4 Murchison_crop

A fragment of the Murchison meteorite, fell in Australia in 1969, of the type carbonaceous chondrites, which contains amino acids and other organic compounds. Image from Wikipedia

The isotope ratio 12C/13C of uracil and other organic compounds in the Murchison indicates an origin no terrestrial (Martins et al. 2008). In fact, besides the Murchison, the analyses made with many other meteorites show that organic compounds can be formed in outer space.

Model studies done with computer suggest that prebiogenic organic compounds might be formed in the protoplanetary disk of dust that surrounded the sun before the formation of the Earth, and that the same process may happen around other stars (Moskowitz 2012).

Moreover, studies of infrared emission spectra (Kwok & Zhang 2011) of cosmic dust have concluded that complex organic molecules are produced in the supernova stars, and that these molecules are expelled to the interstar space by effect of the explosion of the star. Surprisingly, this organic dust is similar to compounds found in meteorites. Since meteorites are remnants of the early solar system, we can now suggest that organic compounds found in meteorites had formed in distant stars .

5 espectre 111026143721-large

Infrared spectrum of organic compounds, superimposed on an image of the Orion Nebula where these complex organic compounds (with the formulas) have been found. Image taken from NASA (C.R. O’Dell and S.K. Wong, Rice University.

In recent years there has been a breakthrough in the detection of organic molecules in galactic space thanks to the radio telescopes such as the Green Bank (100 m diameter) in West Virginia (USA), and the ALMA (Atacama Large Millimeter Array, at 5000 m in the Atacama Desert, northern Chile) which is composed of 66 radio antennas of 12 m diameter connected to each other by optical fiber. These astronomical radio telescopes or interferometers capture wavelengths around mm.

With these telescopes, as commented by Pere Brunet last month in his post post “Som pols d’estrelles ?” (Are we stardust ?, of the blog Fractal Ara-Ciència), different compounds have been detected around other stars: propenal, cyclo-propenone, acetamide, and glycolaldehyde (CHO-CH2OH). The latter is quite significant, since it is the smallest sugar and it is necessary for the formation of RNA. It has been detected with ALMA, around a young binary sun-type star (IRAS 16293-2422 ), 400 light years from Earth, relatively close, within the Milky Way (Jørgensen et al. 2012) .

Synthesis of organic compounds due to impacts of extraterrestrial objects

Finally, we have this third mechanism related with the article object of this post (Martins et al. 2013). Well, as we said before, this possibility was already reviewed by Chyba & Sagan (1992), because experiments in this direction had been made years ago. Carl Sagan itself, with other authors (Bar-Nun et al. 1970) had shown that applying a thermal shock, simulating impacts of comets and micrometeorites, to a gas mixture similar to the primitive atmosphere, there appeared amino acids.

However, thinking about the impacts of extraterrestrial bodies the first idea is the opposite, that they are antagonists of life on Earth because we remember the impact which caused extinctions and catastrophes such as the asteroid 65 million years falling in the Chicxulub crater in Yucatan, or a much smaller scale, the meteorite that fell last year in Chelyabinsk, Russia, with the appearance of fireballs. However, although these collisions can cause adverse effects on living beings where they fall, at the same time the energy released by the shock can be a source of reactions that generate prebiogenic organic compounds, as evidenced by the work of Martins et al. (2013).

At the same time, it has been shown that biological compounds that were present in the meteorite can “survive” impacts. Indeed, it has been shown that these compounds may be captured in the carbonaceous pores, inside the molten material due to the temperature and pressure of impact, particularly in analyses made with material of Darwin Crater in Tasmania, coming from a meteorite that impacted 800,000 years ago (Howard et al. 2013).

Besides from Martins et al., other studies have also simulated the effects of impacts. Furukawa et al. (2009) simulated the impact of a meteorite chondrite-type in a primitive ocean. They used a propulsion gun to create a high-speed impact in a mixture of carbon, iron, nickel, nitrogen and water, and then they recovered several organic molecules, including fatty acids, amines and one amino acid.

Thus, these experiments suggest that the impact of frequent extraterrestrial bodies in the primitive Earth had resulted in a great contribution to the formation of many different organic compounds, and as I said, adding that to the contribution of the already previously synthesized in outer space and to in situ synthesis in the same Earth.


Bar-Nun A, Bar-Nun N, Bauer SH, Sagan C. 1970. Shock synthesis of amino acids in simulated primitive environments. Science 168, 470-472.

Chyba C, Sagan C. 1992. Endogenous production, exogenous delivery and impact-shock synthesis of organic molecules: an inventory for the origins of life. Nature 355, 125–32

Dolmetsch C. 2006. NASA Spacecraft Returns With Comet Samples After 2.9 Bln Miles. 2006-01-15

Editorial. 2013. The upside of impacts. Nature Geoscience 6, 987.

Furukawa Y, Sekine T, Oba M, Kakegawa T, Nakazawa H. 2009. Biomolecule formation by oceanic impacts on early Earth. Nature Geoscience 2, 62–66

Generalitat de Catalunya. 2014. “Científics descobreixen com es formen les molècules bàsiques de la vida”. Recercat 94, gener 2014.

Howard KT et 12 al. 2013. Biomass preservation in impact melt ejecta. Nature Geoscience 6, 1018-1023.

Jørgensen JK, Favre C, Bisschop SE, Bourke TL, van Dishoeck EF, Schmalzl M. 2012. Detection of the simplest sugar, glycolaldehyde, in a solar-type protostar with ALMA. Astrophysical Journal Letters 757, L4, 1-13.

Kvenvolden KA, Lawless J, Pering K, Peterson E, Flores J, Ponnamperuma C, Kaplan IR, Moore C. 1970. Evidence for extraterrestrial amino-acids and hydrocarbons in the Murchison meteorite. Nature 228, 923–926

Kwok S, Zhang Y. 2011. Mixed aromatic–aliphatic organic nanoparticles as carriers of unidentified infrared emission features. Nature, DOI:10.1038/nature10542

Martins Z, Botta O, Fogel ML, Sephton MA, Glavin DP, Watson JS, Dworkin JP, Schwartz AW, Ehrenfreund P. 2008. Extraterrestrial nucleobases in the Murchison meteorite. Earth and Planetary Science Letters 270, 130–136

Martins Z, MC Price, N Goldman, MA Sephton, MJ Burchell. 2013. Shock synthesis of amino acids from impacting cometary and icy planet surface analogues. Nature Geoscience 6, 1045-1049.

Moskowitz C. 2012. Life’s Building Blocks May Have Formed in Dust Around Young Sun.

Menor-Salván C, Ruiz-Bermejo DM, Guzmán MI, Osuna-Esteban S, Veintemillas-Verdaguer S. 2007. Synthesis of pyrimidines and triazines in ice: implications for the prebiotic chemistry of nucleobases. Chemistry 15, 4411–8.

Oparin A. 1952. The origin of life. New York: Dover.

Oró J. 1961. Mechanism of synthesis of adenine from hydrogen cyanide under possible primitive Earth conditions. Nature 191, 1193–4.

Parker ET, Cleaves HJ, Dworkin JP et al. 2011. Primordial synthesis of amines and amino acids in a 1958 Miller H2S-rich spark discharge experiment. PNAS 108, 5526–31.

Wikipedia:  (very good review of life’s origin andthe different hypothesis)



About Albert Bordons

Professor at "Universitat Rovira i Virgili" in Tarragona. Born in Barcelona 1951. Scientific areas: microbiology, biochemistry, biotechnology, oenology. I like: nature, biological sciences, photography, mountains, ... Languages: catalan (first one), spanish, french, english and some italian.

Posted on 23/02/2014, in Evolution, Life's origin and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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