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Amino Acids Dreams
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April 1, 2002
Volume 80, Number 13
CENEAR 80 13 p. 14
ISSN 0009-2347
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Laboratory simulations produce amino acids in spacelike conditions


Researchers in California and in Europe have demonstrated in the laboratory that amino acids, key building blocks for life, can form in ice particles like those found in interstellar space.

REACTOR Amino acids can form on ice grains in interstellar clouds.
Scientists have known for decades that amino acids form in space--some have been carried to Earth on meteorites. But exactly how and where they were created remained uncertain.

Now two research teams have shown that ultraviolet radiation, which is common in interstellar space, can interact with icy mixtures of water and other simple molecules found there at temperatures of less than 15 K to produce amino acids [Nature, 416, 401 and 403 (2002)].

Many astrochemists have suggested that the amino acids found in meteorites formed in an aqueous environment, probably on an asteroid, notes Max P. Bernstein, an organic chemist at NASA's Ames Research Center, where one of the teams is located. Yet deuterium isotope ratios in the lighter amino acids, particularly glycine and alanine, found in meteorites indicate that they formed at extremely low temperatures, well below water's freezing point. Bernstein and his colleagues made glycine, alanine, and serine in their experiment.

The finding means that some of the amino acids found on meteorites may be very ancient, having formed in interstellar clouds before the solar system formed. Such amino acids "likely seed every planet that is formed," suggests astrochemist Louis J. Allamandola of the NASA group.

The other experiment is part of a larger program of the European Space Agency, which will launch a mission next year hoping to rendezvous with a comet and determine whether it contains biologically important organic molecules. Graduate student Guillermo M. Muñoz Caro of the Leiden Observatory in the Netherlands, physical chemistry lecturer Uwe J. Meierhenrich of Bremen University in Germany, and colleagues performed their simulation to test the analytical instrumentation for the mission. Using a somewhat different combination of starting materials, they produced 16 different amino acids.

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