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Sulfur molecules from space may have spawned early life on Earth

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Alkyl sulfonic acids detected in residues of the irradiated ice at room temperature by two-dimensional gas chromatography coupled to time-of-flight mass spectrometry. Gas chromatogram analyzes of the a 100 nA SO2/CH4, b 1000 nA SO2/CH4, c 5000 nA SO2/CH4, D 100 nA SO2/CH4/H2O, e 1000 nA SO2/CH4/H2Oh, and the F 5000 nA SO2/CH4/H2O experiments are shown. For clarity, the peaks in the chromatograms have been scaled. Credit: Nature communication (2024). DOI: 10.1038/s41467-024-48684-5

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Alkyl sulfonic acids detected in residues of the irradiated ice at room temperature by two-dimensional gas chromatography coupled to time-of-flight mass spectrometry. Gas chromatogram analyzes of the a 100 nA SO2/CH4, b 1000 nA SO2/CH4, c 5000 nA SO2/CH4, D 100 nA SO2/CH4/H2O, e 1000 nA SO2/CH4/H2Oh, and the F 5000 nA SO2/CH4/H2O experiments are shown. For clarity, the peaks in the chromatograms have been scaled. Credit: Nature communication (2024). DOI: 10.1038/s41467-024-48684-5

Key nutrients for the first living organisms on Earth may have come from space, according to new research from the University of Hawai’i at Mānoa.

Scientists from the Department of Chemistry discovered that certain sulfur-containing organic molecules called alkyl sulfonic acids can form naturally in space without the presence of life and were delivered to Earth by comets and asteroids.

Sulfur-containing organic molecules are essential for life on Earth because they are crucial for many biological processes, such as the structure and function of proteins, enzyme activity, and cellular respiration to take up sulfur.

These organic molecules were created in laboratory simulations that mimic the conditions of interstellar ice in space. The study also discusses how this discovery could help scientists detect these molecules on comets and asteroids, such as the carbonaceous asteroid Ryugu, providing insight into the chemical processes that may contribute to the origins of life on Earth.

The work has been published in the magazine Nature communication.

“Our discovery highlights the creativity and perseverance of scientists in solving long-standing mysteries about the beginning of life, and sparks curiosity and interest in scientific inquiry and research,” said UH Mānoa professor Ralf I. Kaiser, one of the authors of the study. “Understanding this process can fuel imaginations about our place in the universe and the origins of life itself.”

“Life as we know it requires sulfur, and ancient water-soluble alkyl sulfonic acids are a plausible way to incorporate sulfur into early organisms,” said Mason McAnally, a Ph.D. student and lead author.

More information:
Mason McAnally et al., Abiotic formation of alkyl sulfonic acids in interstellar analog ices and implications for their detection on Ryugu, Nature communication (2024). DOI: 10.1038/s41467-024-48684-5

Magazine information:
Nature communication

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