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Earth Science

Cometary Impacts May Have Provided Key Elements of Life 85

Posted by Unknown Lamer
from the interstellar-snowball-fight dept.
trendspotter writes with news of research indicating that impact events might be responsible for seeding the Earth with reactive forms of the precursors to amino acids. From the article: "Early Earth was not very hospitable when it came to jump starting life. In fact, new research shows that life on Earth may have come from out of this world. Lawrence Livermore scientist Nir Goldman and University of Ontario Institute of Technology colleague Isaac Tamblyn (a former LLNL postdoc) found that icy comets that crashed into Earth millions of years ago could have produced life building organic compounds, including the building blocks of proteins and nucleobases pairs of DNA and RNA. Comets contain a variety of simple molecules, such as water, ammonia, methanol and carbon dioxide, and an impact event with a planetary surface would provide an abundant supply of energy to drive chemical reactions." The paper (PDF).
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Cometary Impacts May Have Provided Key Elements of Life

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  • Except.. (Score:2, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward

    ..that life emerged billions of years ago.

    Not that I am finding fault with the underlying theory, but still..

    CAPTCHA: creator!

    • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

      by Sockatume (732728)

      And comets only appeared last Tuesday?

      • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

        by Anonymous Coward

        I know that reading TFA is not in fashion on /. but can you at least read the summary? It says, "..that icy comets that crashed into Earth millions of years ago could have produced life building organic compounds." That's what I was pointing out. Sheesh.

        • Re:Except.. (Score:5, Informative)

          by Samantha Wright (1324923) on Wednesday June 05, 2013 @12:27PM (#43915547) Homepage Journal

          Well, I for one am extremely unfashionable and actually RTFA:

          "The flux of organic matter to Earth via comets and asteroids during periods of heavy bombardment may have been as high as 10 trillion kilograms per year, delivering up to several orders of magnitude greater mass of organics than what likely pre-existed on the planet," Goldman said.

          The words "heavy bombardment" have particular meaning in the context of solar system history; the most well-known being the (not quite ubiquitously accepted) Late Heavy Bombardment [wikipedia.org], on the moon, 4.1–3.8 billion years ago. The bit about "millions of years ago" was probably added by the public relations science writer and should have been "billions." They get this stuff wrong all the time.

        • Re:Except.. (Score:5, Funny)

          by coinreturn (617535) on Wednesday June 05, 2013 @01:22PM (#43916095)
          And billions of years is still millions of years (just more of them).
  • Wait, what? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by gstoddart (321705) on Wednesday June 05, 2013 @11:51AM (#43915203) Homepage

    Is this even a new idea?

    I've heard this for quite some time now, and I thought this was a prevailing understanding.

    • Re:Wait, what? (Score:4, Insightful)

      by telchine (719345) on Wednesday June 05, 2013 @11:53AM (#43915219)

      Is this even a new idea?

      I've heard this for quite some time now, and I thought this was a prevailing understanding.

      It's like that news story that comes up every few months... Scientist Discover Signs of Water on Mars!

      • by Sockatume (732728)

        You would prefer "scientists now pretty sure water was on Mars, not even going to bother any more"?

        • by cellocgw (617879)

          You would prefer "scientists now pretty sure water was on Mars, not even going to bother any more"?

          That's rather like what The Onion might write. Except that it would probably be a good idea to stop going all ThePriceIsRight over every piece of info that comes back from the Mars rovers in the first place.

        • Yes.

    • Re:Wait, what? (Score:5, Informative)

      by Sockatume (732728) on Wednesday June 05, 2013 @11:58AM (#43915273)

      The idea that comets might be the source of early prebiotic components is old, but this specific research demonstrating that the high pressures and temperatures involved in impacts is capable of converting the simple, common molecules found on comets into more complex prebiotic structures is new.

      • by Shotgun (30919)

        But, wouldn't those same pressures and temperatures be involved in a volcanic eruption? "We came here from another world" sounds more like an episode from Enterprise:TNG than a valid scientific theory. There is no practical implication, and no possible way to test it until we can get to other planets and find some samples that haven't been corrupted by being on this planet.

        • Yes, and that is how these molecules (including water) have traditionally thought to arise. TFA does some more modeling to suggest that cometary impact would produce the appropriate chemicals. I am unaware of any similar research done on volcanoes but 1) I'll bet it exists and 2) I'll bet that the results have significant similiarities.

          This is really pretty handwavy - modeling conditions on theoretical impacts. But unless somebody is planning on moving a comet to a earth shattering kaboom orbit, it's the

        • by gstoddart (321705)

          "We came here from another world" sounds more like an episode from Enterprise:TNG than a valid scientific theory.

          It really depends on what you mean by 'we' and your stance on how life forms in the universe.

          If by 'we came from another world' you mean the basic chemical precursors for life came to planet Earth through things like comets, and somewhere along the way something happened through chemical processes... sure. Because the elements in your body all came from burned up stars, so it's not like the sele

      • Re:Wait, what? (Score:5, Informative)

        by moeinvt (851793) on Wednesday June 05, 2013 @01:06PM (#43915931)

        Actually, I don't know what's new about this.

        http://www.newscientist.com/article/dn16215-meteor-impacts-may-have-sparked-life-on-earth.html [newscientist.com]

        "Yoshihiro Furukawa... used a high-velocity propellant gun to simulate the impacts of ordinary carbon-containing chondrite meteorites .... recovered a variety of organic molecules, including fatty acids, amines, and an amino acid."

        There was a multi-part Nova episode called "Origins" where they also demonstrated this. I can't remember the scientist or laboratory, but they put some simple organic compounds inside a metal plug and then fired a high speed projectile into it (or maybe they fired the plug into a target?). When they opened the container, they found that they had created more complex compounds like amino acids. It looked like a translucent liquid at first, and came out looking like dark slime.

    • Is not new, but neither Is prevailing understanding, as far as I know.
    • by Nerdfest (867930)

      They bring it up every now and then just to stir up the "Creationists".

    • Is this even a new idea?

      I've heard this for quite some time now, and I thought this was a prevailing understanding.

      No, it's not new at all, but there is at least one "news" story on it every year.

      See here [telegraph.co.uk] for 2012's, or here [space.com] for 2011's, here [phys.org] for 2010's, etc., etc.

    • by Sperbels (1008585) on Wednesday June 05, 2013 @01:28PM (#43916147)

      Is this even a new idea?

      BTW, did you hear Voyager has left the solar system?

  • by Anonymous Coward

    So a comet comes smashing into the earth and generates a scattered smattering of amino acids and nucleic acids. Then what?

    How exactly does this arrange itself into life? How much of a critical mass of these varied building blocks are needed for them to somehow self-assemble into a primitive, reproducing set of chemical reactions (aka lifeform)? I mean, this is like saying that if one dude tossed Lego bricks randomly around the world periodically over millions of years, eventually some of them will fall i

  • commetary life (Score:2, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward

    Are we kicking the can down the road now ? Where does cometary life come from ? This is a circular argument.

    • Re:commetary life (Score:5, Insightful)

      by wonkey_monkey (2592601) on Wednesday June 05, 2013 @12:28PM (#43915555) Homepage
      No-one's saying there was life on the comets - just some very useful chemicals.
    • There's no "cometary life". TFA isn't saying that life was on comets, then the comets crashed and life jumped ship to Earth. That'd be like saying your car is powered by a fire contained in the gas tank. It's saying that the raw materials for life were on comets (fuel) and that the temperature and pressure shocks of impact (spark plug) caused them to react and form the components of life.
      • by Dasher42 (514179)

        The article cannot make that claim. The raw materials can be shown to have made the trip. The rest is speculation - where there is very compelling reason to speculate.

        Take for example this research which is saying that if the average of evolutionary increase of genome complexity approximates to Moore's law, then life would date back ten billion years, necessarily arriving on Earth from elsewhere. Of course, this means that extremely simple microbes would have shown up, but that replication and evolution

        • by cusco (717999)
          Moore's Law applied specifically to microprocessors. Keep in mind that the first couple of billion years life on Earth was confined to archae, bacteria, algae and maybe some fungi. More complex organisms have only been around for a quarter of the time that Earth life has existed. That alone should demonstrate the inapplicability of Moore's Law in this case. It's not a universal law meant to apply to all types of complexity, that's just absurd.
      • by dywolf (2673597)

        exactly. and comets (and meteoroids/ites) provide annother crucial ingredient: chaos.
        a lump of idle rock will take longer to spontaneously evolve life than one with lots of mixing and interaction. kinda like how they think tidal pools and other boundary zones were the first palces life and precursors started to occur. impacts of space objects is another source of that chaotic mixing that leads to neat stuff.

  • by Anonymous Coward

    In fact, new research shows that life on Earth may have come from out of this world.

    It's more fun to read this as life came up from the center of the Earth to the surface.

  • I mean, look at our moon and other planets/moons in our solar system. Look at their craters. Look at the craters on our planet. Something hits something else, a peice breaks off and flies toward something else (eventually). Let's say a comet so big hit Earth that gravity from the comet attracts water, bacteria, plantlife, some fish, etc. and then flies off in another direction...carries it somewhere else. If you think about how LONG the universe has been around, this is a scientific certainty that the "buil

    • You're jumping ahead of the game. You're describing Panspermia [wikipedia.org] (I always thought that term a tad chauvinistic). This is just splattering pre biotic chemicals around. Then the really interesting part occurs - somehow these precursor chemicals assemble / get transformed / major hand waving into life as we know it.

    • by Samantha Wright (1324923) on Wednesday June 05, 2013 @12:57PM (#43915843) Homepage Journal

      You'll have to narrow your scope a little: we're pretty sure that all of the interesting bits of evolution (the distinction between bacteria and archaea, the rise of animals, plants, protists, and fungi, multicellularity, and everything since) happened right here. To use a surprisingly good computing analogy, not only do we have the fossil records, but we can compare the source code and see where the forks happened. A lot of the most interesting adaptations are serendipitous re-uses of really old code.

      The possibility that living cells might have arrived on Earth is considered something of a toss-up. There have been quite a lot of difficult-to-test proposals about how they could've arisen from fairly basic building blocks here, and they all seem pretty plausible. We're pretty sure about the RNA world hypothesis (the idea that life only started using proteins for enzymes and DNA for storage later, and started off using just what we think of as a makeshift intermediary for everything) but we don't have much of a clue about what happened before that, and we can't say for certain it happened here or not. We also don't know how life went from being a single self-replicating molecule into a membrane-protected cell, nor if there was some storage molecule before RNA that was even simpler to operate on.

      However, this article [slashdot.org] is almost certainly wrong because RNA's inherent stability causes it to evolve at a much faster rate. So at the very least, it's still possible that there was enough time for life to evolve here from pure abiogenesis.

    • by Molochi (555357)

      That's not what is being presented. The idea is that the comet has a high concentration of the chemicals needed to create the more complex chemical building blocks of life when combined with the plentiful chemicals on earth at that time and a lot of heat and pressure. It's collision with the earth would provide that heat and pressure.

      There is no supposition of life being transferred from one planet to another here. The resulting chemicals wouldn't be alive, they'd just exist in high concentration allowing "

  • Impossible (Score:2, Flamebait)

    by Sparticus789 (2625955)

    The Earth is only 6,000 years old. Or so says this guy [youtube.com]

  • by starglider29a (719559) on Wednesday June 05, 2013 @12:30PM (#43915583)
    According to Hawking, Gravity (capital G) created the Universe: http://physics.stackexchange.com/questions/13013/stephen-hawking-says-universe-can-create-itself-from-nothing-but-how-exactly [stackexchange.com]
    According to TFA, Gravity (capital G) created life (via the kinetic energy of the comets obeying laws of Gravity)
    According to Genesis, God created the Universe and life.
    Therefore, Gravity = God.

    Glad we finally solved that! Can we move on now?
    • Glad we finally solved that! Can we move on now?

      Sure, now that we've solved the easy bits, we can try to figure out what women are really thinking.

      • Glad we finally solved that! Can we move on now?

        Sure, now that we've solved the easy bits, we can try to figure out what women are really thinking.

        Women don't even know what women are really thinking.

      • by meglon (1001833)
        If we were to figure out what women thought, the universe would collapse in on itself, then reinvent itself into something even more bizarre than what it is now, with an entirely new set of physical laws...and women with even different thinking patterns.

        Why do you hate this universe so much!!!!!
    • by dywolf (2673597) on Wednesday June 05, 2013 @01:17PM (#43916037)

      hmmm...God is unknowable...and we're having trouble tying Gravity into the universal Theory of Stuff...

      My Gravity, he's right!

  • The University of South Florida has more about this topic and writes that: "life-producing phosphorus was carried to Earth by meteorites." http://news.usf.edu/article/templates/?a=5477&z=210 [usf.edu]
    • Well, considering that Earth is just a big pile of meteorites surrounding a Racnoss nursery ship, I'd hardly call it news that that's how phosphorus got here. It's also how copper, zinc, and samarium got here.
  • Zombies (Score:4, Funny)

    by VorpalRodent (964940) on Wednesday June 05, 2013 @12:50PM (#43915783)

    I initially misread the headline as "Cemetery impacts..." and assumed that this was going to be a nice discussion of zombies and/or how to be successful with necromancy.

    Unfortunately, once again, it's only a discussion of how to set up abiogenesis.

  • That idea is a hard sell to dinosaurs.

  • More likely it arose in micro gravity forming bubbles in gas/water clouds, nebula, Oort clouds, etc. flash frozen and then spread throughout the galaxy like dandelion seeds.

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