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Current Affairs

Solar system’s oldest molecular fluid holds key to early life

Date: 14 May 2020 Tags: Miscellaneous

Issue

The oldest molecular fluids in the solar system could have supported the rapid formation and evolution of the building blocks of life, new research reveals.

 

Background

An international group of scientists used state-of-the-art techniques to map individual atoms in minerals formed in fluids on an asteroid over 4.5 billion years ago.

 

Details

  • Studying the iconic Tagish Lake meteorite, scientists used atom-probe tomography, a technique capable of imaging atoms in 3D, to target molecules along boundaries and pores between magnetite grains that likely formed on the asteroid’s crust.

  • There, they discovered water precipitates left in the grain boundaries on which they conducted their ground-breaking research.

  • This new atomic-scale research provides the first evidence of the sodium-rich (and alkaline) fluids in which the magnetite framboids formed. These fluid conditions are preferential for the synthesis of amino acids, opening the door for microbial life to form as early as 4.5 billion years ago.

  • Amino acids are essential building blocks of life on Earth, yet we still have a lot to learn about how they first formed in our solar system.

  • The more variables that we can constrain, such as temperature and pH, allows us to better understand the synthesis and evolution of these very important molecules into what we now know as biotic life on Earth.

  • By using new techniques, such as atom probe tomography, the scientists hope to develop analytical methods for planetary materials returned to Earth by space craft, such as by NASA’s OSIRIS-REx mission or a planned sample-return mission to Mars in the near future.

  • Space missions are limited to bringing back tiny amounts of material, meaning these techniques will be critical to allowing us to understand more about the solar system while also preserving material for future generations.