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Design Change. Medicine Change. Computer Application and IT Change. Competition Change. Hotel Management Change. Study Abroad Change. Schools Change. Pharmacy Change. Go To Your Study Dashboard. Home Need clarity, kindly explain! Astrochemists were just fine without our icy grains. They saw us as nutty professors. That all changed in the s when Allamandola and his colleagues, including Leiden astronomer Xander Tielens, conducted observations on board the Kuiper Airborne Observatory—a converted Lockheed aircraft fitted with a telescope and spectrograph.
The telescope was behind a hatch in the side of the fuselage. An airlock made sure that the researchers were not sucked out of the plane as a result of the fall in cabin pressure when the hatch was opened. Because the plane could climb above the water vapor layer in the atmosphere, it was possible to measure the water vapor and ice in space. And they found the ice grains: Dust clouds from which stars and planets were formed contained water ice and the same complex molecules that had been produced in the laboratories in Leiden and Ames.
D uring a conference in Australia in , I myself first heard about the many molecules that have been found in interstellar space since that time. The conference dinner was on Magnetic Island, off the east coast of Queensland. Some astronomers had just finished their dessert and Andrew Walsh, the conference organizer, was speaking. Walsh is a slightly curt Australian with little hair on his head and a beard in two impressive long plaits. Besides astronomy, his great love is brewing beer. Space is not the barren, empty place that Ludwig Von Drake described, but is teeming with the building blocks of organic life.
Is there beer in space? In 15 minutes, Walsh—who became more and more animated—listed the 12 main ingredients of beer. Water, alcohol ethanol , sugars, a few amino acids. Then he showed us photographs of the areas where stars are formed—the same dust clouds that Allamandola simulated with his laboratory ice. Enthusiastically, one after the other, Walsh named the ingredients of beer that have been found in all these clouds: plenty of water and ethanol, carbon dioxide, even sugars and a few simple amino acids.
He called on his colleagues to keep looking for the missing ingredients for the space beer. F rom the s, astronomers had not only found some of the ingredients for beer in space, but had started a tentative search for the basic materials of life. Lou Allamandola returned to the U. Besides, the chemistry I study is still so far removed from the origins of life.
Some of the experiments conducted by the Allamandola team produced remarkable results. After each experiment, the radiated ice was thawed out and dissolved in water. The liquid was then heated up so that the water evaporated. Perhaps there was something in the yellow stuff that was too complex to have been picked up earlier by the spectroscope?
Greenberg made headlines in the Netherlands in , when he suspected that the residue also contained amino acids. Amino acids are the basis of proteins in our bodies and are the building blocks of life. Prebiotic, biogenic A human being, even a living cell, is an enormously complex Lego construction.
All we found were a few individual Lego bricks, not the whole structure. Besides amino acids, there were also sugars and even nucleic acids, which form the basis of DNA. They also found elongated molecules that repelled water on one side hydrophobic and bond easily with water on the other hydrophylic.
The cell membranes of the human body are made of the same type of molecules. As Allamandola tells me all this, I become as enthusiastic as the journalist from the Leidse Courant. Allamandola spreads his arms and gestures me to calm down. There are about different definitions. What we have found has nothing to do with life, as yet. All we have found is the building blocks; how they eventually lead to a living organism is a completely different matter.
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S cientists have been addressing this question for hundreds of years. Complex molecules like amino acids were produced in their test environment, which was later more or less replicated by Bill Borucki.
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The experiments by Allamandola and Greenberg showed that the same substances could be created in a block of ice in space that had been radiated by a star. The big question was, how did these substances end up on Earth?
The Earth most likely originated as a hot ball of liquid rock. Some 4 billion years ago, it had sufficiently cooled for life to evolve. The oldest fossils found on Earth are of bacteria that developed around that time. The ice experiments showed that we could also find the basic materials for these organisms in space. Could these molecules, via a sort of cosmic postal service, have been delivered to the Earth after it cooled off?
Panspermia, the hypothesis that life on Earth originated in space, was starting to look like an interesting possibility. In Allamandola met biochemist David Deamer. At that time, Deamer had a fragment from a meteorite that had impacted in Australia. An enormous chunk of rock weighing around kilograms had broken up into smaller pieces in the atmosphere. The fragments were later analyzed in a laboratory.
It was a remarkable find, showing that meteorites that impact the Earth contain the basic materials for organisms. I simply did not dare to show some of our results, which suggested that the building blocks of life can be formed in meteorites. If I were to do that, whether it was at a chemistry or an astronomy conference, my colleagues would think I had gone insane. S ince then, there has been a growing awareness that many of the substances that we absorb on a daily basis were formed in space.
Take water, for example. Every meteorite or comet is an enormous snowball with its origins in the birth cloud of the solar system. It is difficult to imagine that enough of these snowballs have fallen to Earth to create all the oceans, but I recently saw an image that made this idea a little more acceptable. The largest of the spheres—in diameter about the same as the distance from Amsterdam to Rome—represents all the water in, on or above the Earth. It is pretty small compared to the size of the Earth.