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Poison could have led to life

Artist's impression of a young planetary system

Organic molecules on Earth could have had their beginning in chemical reactions involving formaldehyde in the infant days of the Solar System.

FORMALDEHYDE, A POISON and a common molecule found throughout the universe, is likely the source of the Solar System’s organic carbon solids—abundant in both comets and asteroids—according to new research.

Scientists have long speculated about how organic, or carbon-containing, material became a part of the Solar System’s fabric.

Now new research from the Carnegie Institution’s George Cody, along with Conel Alexander and Larry Nittler, shows that these complex organic solids were likely converted from formaldehyde that existed in the primitive Solar System.

“We may owe our existence on this planet to interstellar formaldehyde,” Cody said. “And what’s ironic about it is that formaldehyde is poisonous to life on Earth.”

During the early period of the inner Solar System’s formation, much of the organic carbon that wasn’t trapped in primitive bodies like asteroids was lost into space, along with much of the water.

To find out where the organics came from, Cody, of Carnegie’s Geophysical Laboratory, along with Alexander and Nittler, of the Department of Terrestrial Magnetism, and the team decided to study primitive Solar System bodies using advanced methods.

Cross-section of a chondritic meteorite

Cross-section of a chondritic meteorite

What they discovered clearly pointed to a substance formed from formaldehyde.

They tested their conclusion with experiments that aimed to reproduce the type of organic matter found in carbonaceous chondrites—a type of organic-rich meteorite—starting with formaldehyde.

They found that their formaldehyde-synthesised organic material was not only similar to that found in carbonaceous chondrites, but also similar to organic material found in a comet named 81P/Wild 2, pieces of which were collected in space by NASA’s Stardust mission, as well as in interplanetary dust particles, or particles from space that likely originated from comets and asteroids.

They say their results make sense, because formaldehyde is relatively abundant throughout the galaxy and the conversion process would have been possible under the conditions prevailing in the primitive Solar System.

Their work was published online April 4 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Adapted from information issued by the Carnegie Institution. Planetary system artwork courtesy ESA, NASA and L. Calçada (ESO).

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