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Biotech Space Science

NASA Reproduces a Building Block of Life In the Lab 264

xp65 writes "NASA scientists studying the origin of life have reproduced uracil, a key component of our hereditary material, in the laboratory. They discovered that an ice sample containing pyrimidine exposed to ultraviolet radiation under space-like conditions produces this essential ingredient of life. 'We have demonstrated for the first time that we can make uracil, a component of RNA, non-biologically in a laboratory under conditions found in space,' said Michel Nuevo, research scientist at NASA's Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, Calif. 'We are showing that these laboratory processes, which simulate occurrences in outer space, can make a fundamental building block used by living organisms on Earth.'"
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NASA Reproduces a Building Block of Life In the Lab

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  • Ah, Uracil! (Score:3, Interesting)

    by StefanJ ( 88986 ) on Monday November 09, 2009 @08:15PM (#30040558) Homepage Journal

    Wasn't that the secret ingredient that made Sucrets sooth sore throats 27% faster? Or Pampers 14% drier? Or Lucky Strikes the choice of five out of six doctors surveyed?

    But seriously . . . cool.

    If only because the Discovery Institute will have to scrap another set of creationist text books.

    • Re:Ah, Uracil! (Score:4, Informative)

      by Ann O'Nymous-Coward ( 460094 ) on Monday November 09, 2009 @08:17PM (#30040584)

      As if. Creationists don't care about facts. If they did, they wouldn't be creationists.

    • Why? God put that stuff there and then made it all come together to form life. You can't debunk a myth as powerful as this when you have a God that is omniscient and omnipotent it just can't be done, faith will rationalize any argument you present into the ground. Blind Faith by it's nature is unbeatable. You anti-creationists just need to sit back and wait for a creationist to die and then say "told you so" but um wait... that won't work either. I guess we're hosed no matter what we discover. Can't
      • God put that stuff there and then made it all come together to form life.

        *blinks* I'm confused about this one. It seems that you are suggesting that all Creationists (and by extension, Christians) believe God used evolution to form life? While there are plenty of "Theistic Evolutionists," there are also those that believe evolution of species did not occur at all (and that God did not use evolution).

        • How is declaring anything all Creationists believe in any way related to what all Christians believe? Creationism, in Catholic theology, is a heresy (see St. Augustine).

      • by vivian ( 156520 )

        I couldnt agree more.

        If by "God" you mean "A statistical probability that approaches one given a large enough timespan and enough random reactions of molecules eventually forming something that can self replicate", then yes. Of course once you have something that can self replicate, it is only a matter of time before mutations in the replication process cause those molecules that are best able to replicate to fill any new environmental niches ans set of conditions that is conducive to further replication.


  • Where's the "!urine" tag on this one? Please, somebody think of the drunken graduate students who might read this story and decide to reproduce the results.
  • by interactive_civilian ( 205158 ) <mamoru AT gmail DOT com> on Monday November 09, 2009 @08:35PM (#30040754) Homepage Journal

    I have a feeling that this will lead to the speculation that Earth was therefore seeded with fundamental biomolecules from space and this paved the way for life to begin on Earth. I hope people don't jump to this conclusion too quickly. Personally, I find it unlikely and think there is a more likely interpretation, which I will get to in a moment. The reason this is unlikely is that just having biomolecules is not enough to start life processes. Especially in the time frame when life is hypothesized to have originated (~3.8Gya), as the surface of the Earth was completely covered by ocean at that time, and any seeding of organic molecules from external sources runs into the concentration problem: the problem of getting enough of the right molecules in the right place with the right concentration and the right inputs of energy and raw materials for biochemistry to begin. Any such seeding from external sources would end up very dilute, and biomolecules would likely break down before they could be gathered in sufficient concentrations.

    Personally, one possible interpretation which I prefer is that these findings (and similar ones of finding amino acids in comets and such) indicate that organic biomolecules are fairly common and will form anywhere you have C, O, H, N, S, etc and energy. Not only would this indicate that biomolecules could form fairly easily on Earth, but that they are common in the universe, and organic life may arise just about anywhere you have an input of energy and raw materials and a way of concentrating those molecules so they will react and form self-organizing and self-replicating biochemistry.

    My current favorite hypothesis about the origins of life on Earth are those championed by Martin and Russell. They hypothesize that life on Earth began and alkaline hydrothermal vents in the ocean, around which porous rocks of iron and nickel sulfide would form semi-permeable cell-like compartments in which basic organic molecules formed by the geochemistry of the vent could concentrate and react with each other. Raw materials would be constantly input from the vent, and there would be a constant energy gradient in the form of heat, pH, and proton-motive force. This neatly solves several problems of many hypotheses of abiogenesis: the energy problems, the raw materials problem, and the concentration problem to name a few. They outline the overall picture of going from geochemistry to biochemistry to prokaryotes to eukaryotes in this 2003 paper:

    On the origins of cells: a hypothesis for the evolutionary transitions from abiotic geochemistry to chemoautotrophic prokaryotes, and from prokaryotes to nucleated cells [] - Martin and Russell, Phil. Trans. R. Soc. Lond. B 29 January 2003 vol. 358 no. 1429 59-85

    They further clarify the possible pathways for a shift from geochemistry to biochemistry in this 2006 paper:

    On the origin of biochemistry at an alkaline hydrothermal vent [] - Martin and Russell, Phil. Trans. R. Soc. B 29 October 2007 vol. 362 no. 1486 1887-1926

    A search for either of those followed by clicking on the "Cited By" link on Google Scholar will yield many papers, including some actual experiments supporting them, which expand and clarify these hypotheses. Definitely worth a read if you are interested in the possible origins of life on Earth, as well as perhaps some ideas of what to look for when looking for life elsewhere.

    Anyway, point being, this is fantastic work by NASA, and an excellent example of showing that these molecules can form naturally. Just be careful about drawing any definite conclusions from them other than the simple conclusion that Uracil can form in these natural conditions, and possibly or probably others.

    • I agree that we shouldn't jump to specific conclusions. However, one of the chief oriticisms leveled by Creationists/IDers and panspermiests is that necessary organic molecules were unavailable and thus natural abiogenesis on Earth is impossible.

      I like to think that what's being assembled is a catalog of compounds that were around prior to abiogenesis. This allows us to build more accurate models of both the environment and of potential pathways to the first primitive replicators.

      I'm also a fan of the hyd

      • one of the chief oriticisms leveled by Creationists/IDers and panspermiests is that necessary organic molecules were unavailable and thus natural abiogenesis on Earth is impossible.

        Most of the abiogenesis-is-impossible talks/discussions/arguments that I have heard chiefly deal with formation of life from the necessary molecules - e.g., the necessary protiens - not the formation of those molecules themselves. In other words, even if all the necessary components were there, those components don't magically create life. Scientists have not been able to talk the raw components, which we already have access to, and get them to form a something living, have they? (open to reading somethi

        • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

          Scientists have not been able to talk the raw components, which we already have access to, and get them to form a something living, have they?

          Not a full on living system, no. However, the components, such as evolving self-replicators (in the form of RNA) have been made in labs. Pretty amazing stuff. (linky [] linky [])

          This is one of the things that annoys me about those kinds of creationist/ID arguments. It took nature on the order of 400(+/- 100) million years to go from inorganic geochemistry to free living chemoautotrophs, and yet, they somehow expect scientists to be able to replicate that in the lab in the half-century or so that we've been able t

          • by rho ( 6063 )

            It's not that scientists haven't been able to reproduce what happened over a million years that engenders skepticism. It's that scientists manage to make a nut and a bolt in the lab, and evolution cheerleaders point to it and say, "And in a million years, it becomes a car! WHERE IS YOUR GOD NOW, JESUS BOY?"

            I think it's neat that we're getting hints about how life can possibly form from ordinary chemistry. But they're just hints, and it's just a possibility. Hand-waving, story-telling and invoking the mill

  • If you subscribe to the RNA world hypothesis this isn't that much of hot news - at least to me. There was a paper in nature earlier this year where a group of scientists managed to produce uracil, but that wasn't the main point. They also managed to produce more molecules and gave some good arguments for a RNA world. This is not just a repetition of the Miller-Experiment, as some poster suggested. Saying that is basically saying that cars build on assembly lines today are just a repetition of the production
  • Terrific, scientists can duplicate something that has been going on elsewhere in the universe for gajillions of years. WHERE IS MY JET PACK?


  • It always amazes me that people are in any way surprised that the molecules used by life on Earth turn out to be easy to form, either on Earth itself or in space. It would be far more surprising and interesting if life on Earth involved molecules that are really hard to make under normal conditions.

    However, this research does demonstrate that these molecules can form in space, which may indicate that they are also common across the universe, not just due to local conditions that held on the early Earth. W

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