Meteorites that crashed on Earth billions of years ago contain sugars, researchers say, supporting the idea that asteroids can contain some of the ingredients for life.
An international team of scientists found “bio-essential” sugars in meteorites, which also contain other biologically important compounds, according to a NASA press release on Tuesday.
Asteroids, rocky objects near the Earth that orbit the Sun, are the main bodies of most meteorites. And the theory suggests that chemical reactions within asteroids can create some of the essential elements for life.
In a study published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences , researchers analyzed three meteorites, including one that landed in Australia in 1969 and dates back billions of years ago. Previous studies have also tried to investigate meteorites looking for sugar, but this time, the researchers used a different extraction method with hydrochloric acid and water.
The researchers found sugars such as arabinose and xylose, but the most significant finding was ribose.
Ribose plays a very important role in our human biology. It exists in our RNA molecules (ribonucleic acid) and delivers messages from our DNA to help build proteins for our bodies, according to the press release.
“It is remarkable that a molecule as fragile as ribose can be detected in such an old material,” said NASA’s Jason Dworkin, co-author of the study, in the press release.
The ribose discovery also suggests that RNA evolved before DNA, giving scientists a clearer picture of how life could have formed.
DNA has long been considered “the template for life,” but RNA molecules have more capabilities, such as replication without the help of other molecules, according to the press release. These additional capabilities, combined with the fact that researchers have not yet found the sugars in DNA in meteorites, support the theory that “RNA coordinated the machinery of life before DNA.”
“The research provides the first direct evidence of ribose in space and the delivery of sugar to Earth,” said Yoshihiro Furukawa of Tohoku University of Japan, lead author of the study, in the press release. “Extraterrestrial sugar could have contributed to the formation of RNA on prebiotic Earth that possibly led to the origin of life.”
Of course, there is a possibility that the meteorites have been contaminated by life on Earth, but the evidence found evidence that this is unlikely and that the sugars probably came from space.
For now the studies authors will continue to analyze meteorites to see how abundant these sugars are and how they may have influenced life on Earth.
This new research adds to a growing list of studies that suggest meteorites may have led to terrestrial life here on Earth. Last year, researchers discovered that two meteorites contained other ingredients for life: amino acids, hydrocarbons, other organic matter and traces of liquid water that could be dated from the early days of our solar system.