Remember the so-called Sutter’s Mill meteor that lit up the night sky over California last year? If you’re like me, it’s impossible not to hear that name and think of Grover’s Mill from Orson Welles’ 1938 broadcast of War of the Worlds. While that ruse supposedly brought alien life to the surface of our planet, this visitor brought something unexpected along for the ride as well. When the flaming space rock made landfall in April 22, 2012, it carried ingredients for life in the form of molecules of organic matter heretofore unseen in meteorites. After examining the meteor fragments, researchers think this discovery could provide insights into the primordial ooze from which life on Earth sprang.
It is not uncommon for meteorites to contain compounds found here on Earth, but this time around, they contained something new and different. Most of the meteorites we see start off as pieces of asteroids that hang out between Mars and Jupiter. Sandra Pizzarello, a biochemist at Arizona State University in Tempe, told Space.com, “Their composition therefore has always been seen as an indication that the precursors to the evolution that led to the origins of life could have come from the extraterrestrial material of meteorites.”
When working with samples such as these, scientists can typically remove the organic material by using various solvents. When the team went at these particular extraterrestrial rocks, the process detected compounds that haven’t been seen before in similar finds. This discovery indicates that there could be a wider variety of organic compounds lurking out there in space than previously believed.
What does this have to do with the origin of life on Earth? The working theory is that a meteorite crashed into our planet, introducing new organic material into the “prebiotic soup,” dissolving into the mix, kicking things off. For this to happen, however, scientists speculate that once the specific compounds most favorable to creating life, landed and dissolved, they first had to become concentrated enough to achieve this. Essentially, something needed to hold them together, much like a cellular membrane. Apparently these particular materials could be especially apt at this type of thing. Talking about the compounds found in the Sutter’s Mill meteorites, Pizzarello says, “could be good for such a purpose, because they can form rudimentary enclosures to contain compounds useful to prebiotic evolution.”
Whatever this discovery turns out to be, a glimpse into the origins of life on Earth, or just a set of elevated hopes, it should be an interesting story to watch develop over time.