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NEWS OF THE WEEK
ASTROCHEMISTRY
December 24, 2001
Volume 79, Number 52
CENEAR 79 52 p. 8
ISSN 0009-2347
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SWEET BEGINNINGS
Simple sugars and other polyols are found in Murchison, Murray meteorites

REBECCA RAWLS

Add another important class of organic molecules to the list of those that were likely present on Earth when life first evolved. Using a combination of gas chromatography and mass spectrometry, George Cooper and colleagues at NASA Ames Research Center in California and at the International Research School of Planetary Sciences in Pescara, Italy, have identified sugars and sugarlike molecules as components of two well-studied carbon-rich meteorites.

7952NOTW5.meteor
ONE LUMP OR TWO? Fragment of Murchison meteorite contains sugars.
RUSSELL KEMPTON, NEW ENGLAND METEOROLOGICAL SERVICES
Their finding means that such molecules can form in space and that meteorites could have carried them to the early Earth.

The chemists have identified the three-carbon sugar dihydroxyacetone, some tentative evidence for six-carbon sugars such as glucose, and a host of other polyols of the three- to six-carbon size as constituents of the Murchison meteorite, which fell in Australia in 1969, and of the Murray meteorite, which fell in Kentucky in 1950 [Nature, 414, 879 (2001)].

These meteorites are 4.6 billion-year-old preserved samples of the solar system's primordial material, Cooper points out. And sugars, which--along with carboxylic acids, amino acids, and a few other classes of simple organic molecules--are fundamental building blocks of modern biochemistry, had been notably absent from the list of confirmed classes of molecules found in meteorites.

"At this point, it's too early to say, 'Aha! These molecules went into the first life forms,' " Cooper says. "But finding them in these meteorites fills a big gap in understanding the chemistry that may have led to life."

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