Key Building Block for Organic Molecules

Hexamethylenetetramine Structure

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The symmetric chemical structure of hexamethylenetetramine (HMT, left) and its electrostatic capacity (right). Credit: Yasuhiro Oba, et al. Nature Communications. December 7, 2020

Scientists from Japan and NASA have actually verified the existence in meteorites of an essential natural particle that might have been utilized to construct other natural particles, consisting of some utilized by life. The discovery confirms theories of the development of natural substances in extraterrestrial environments.

The chemistry of life operates on natural substances, particles including carbon and hydrogen, which likewise might consist of oxygen, nitrogen and other components. While typically connected with life, natural particles likewise can be produced by non-biological procedures and are not always indications of life. An sustaining secret concerning the origin of life is how biology might have emerged from non-biological chemical procedures, called prebiotic chemistry. Organic particles from meteorites might be among the sources of natural substances that resulted in the development of life on Earth.

Associate Professor Yasuhiro Oba from Hokkaido University, Japan, led a worldwide group of scientists who found the existence of a prebiotic natural particle called hexamethylenetetramine (HMT) in 3 various carbon-rich meteorites. Their discovery confirms designs and theories that propose HMT as a crucial particle in the development of natural substances in interstellar environments.

Murchison Meteorite Fragment

Photo of a piece of the Murchison meteorite that was utilized in this research study. Credit: NASA

“HMT is a key piece of a puzzle which draws the whole picture of chemical evolution in space,” stated Oba, lead author of a paper about the research study released in December 2020 in the journal Nature Communications. “To discuss the development of meteoritic natural particles such as amino acids and sugars, 2 quickly vaporized (unpredictable) particles, formaldehyde, and ammonia, are needed in asteroids, the moms and dad bodies of numerous meteorites. However, considering that they are quickly lost from asteroidal environments due to their high volatility, researchers question how enough might have been offered to construct the meteoritic natural particles being discovered. HMT does not vaporize even at space temperature level, and it can produce both particles if it is warmed with liquid water inside asteroids. Finding HMT in meteorites verifies the hypothesis that it is a steady source for ammonia and formaldehyde in asteroids.”

Early in the planetary system’s history, numerous asteroids might have been warmed by accidents or the decay of radioactive components. If some asteroids were warm sufficient and had liquid water, HMT might have broken down to offer foundation such as formaldehyde and ammonia that in turn responded to make other crucial biological particles which have actually been discovered in meteorites, consisting of amino acids. Some kinds of amino acids are utilized by life to make proteins, which are utilized to construct structures like hair and nails, or to accelerate or manage chain reactions.

“These results shed light on the various ways amino acids can form in extraterrestrial environments,” stated Jason Dworkin, a co-author of the paper at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. “This can be explored further when comparing the samples from Japan’s Hayabusa2 and NASA’s OSIRIS-REx missions. These spacecraft collected material from asteroids with what appears to be different histories of liquid water. If there is a mission to return a sample from a comet nucleus someday, perhaps we can see if there is a connection between HMT in comets and asteroids.”

HMT Extraction

Daniel Glavin prepares to powder the Murchison meteorite in a HEPA filtered laminar circulation bench at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. Credit: NASA

While the variety of natural substances in meteorites is well-documented, numerous concerns stay about the procedures by which these substances were formed. The essential meteorites in this location of research study are carbonaceous chondrites, stony meteorites which contain high portions of water and natural substances. Experimental designs have actually revealed that a mix of water, ammonia, and methanol, when subjected to photochemical and thermal conditions typical in extraterrestrial environments, generate a variety of natural substances, the most typical of which is HMT. Interstellar ice is abundant in methanol. Hypothetically, HMT need to prevail in water-containing extraterrestrial products, however, up until this research study, it had actually not been identified.

HMT is most likely to disintegrate when exposed to procedures typically utilized in the analysis of natural substances in meteorites, and for that reason, might not have actually been identified in other research studies despite the fact that it existed. The researchers established a technique that particularly drawn out HMT from meteorites with very little breakdown. This approach enabled them to separate substantial amounts of HMT and HMT derivatives from the meteorites Murchison, Murray, and Tagish Lake.

Since Earth has plentiful life, the scientists needed to be positive that the HMT discovered in the meteorites remained in reality extraterrestrial, and not simply from contamination by terrestrial life. “The Murchison fragment used in this study was from the Chicago Field Museum that had been stored for many years inside a sealed container, and is the least contaminated and most pristine piece of Murchison we have ever studied for amino acids, giving us more confidence that the HMT detected in this meteorite is in fact extraterrestrial in origin,” stated Daniel Glavin of NASA Goddard, a co-author on the research study.

Read Chemistry of Life: Key Building Block for Organic Molecules Discovered in Meteorites for more on this research study.

Reference: “Extraterrestrial hexamethylenetetramine in meteorites—a precursor of prebiotic chemistry in the inner solar system” by Yasuhiro Oba, Yoshinori Takano, Hiroshi Naraoka, Yoshihiro Furukawa, Daniel P. Glavin, Jason P. Dworkin and Shogo Tachibana, 7 December 2020, Nature Communications.
DOI: 10.1038/s41467-020-20038-x

This work was supported by the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science (JSPS) KAKENHI (JP15H05749, JP16H04083, JP17H04862, JP20H00202), the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) Astrobiology Institute through the Goddard Center for Astrobiology (13-13NAI7-0032), NASA’s Planetary Science Division Internal Scientist Funding Program through the Fundamental Laboratory Research (FLaRe) work bundle at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, and the Simons Foundation (SCOL award 302497).

Yasuhiro Oba belongs to the Astrophysical Chemistry/Ice & Planetary Science Group at the Institute of Low Temperature Science, where he studies chemical advancement of substances at scales from molecular clouds to planetary systems.

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