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Extraterrestrial enigma: missing amino acids in meteorites

Amino acids have been found in interstellar clouds and in meteorites but with some enigmatic omissions and tantalizing similarities to life on Earth. Just why some amino acids are present in meteorites and others are absent, and why they seem to prefer the same "left-handed" molecular structure as Earth's living amino acids are questions that could unravel one of the most fundamental questions of science: Where and how did life begin?

"The bottom line is that you have these materials that come from space," says Steve Macko, professor of environmental sciences at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. Macko refers specifically to eight of the amino acids found in a certain kind of meteorite a carbonaceous chondrite. All eight amino acids are identical to those used by life on Earth. That could seem to point to a cosmic origin of these basic biological building blocks, says Macko. The case is bolstered by the fact that early Earth was bombarded with meteorites and the amino acid glycine has been detected on interstellar molecular clouds.

The implications and enigmas of extraterrestrial amino acids will be detailed at a special session celebrating the life and work of the late Glenn Goodfriend, on Monday, Nov. 3, 2003, at the annual meeting of the Geological Society of America in Seattle, WA.

Making the case for cosmic origins of Earth's amino acids even more compelling is the fact that all of the meteorite amino acids, except glycine, favor the "left-handed" molecular structure, or chirality, that is also favored by life on Earth. The preference for left-handed amino acids was a necessary precondition for life, but just why life chose left (L-amino acids) over right (D-amino acids) is a mystery.

"Essentially all of your protein is made of L-amino acids," said Macko. "Why is that? We don't know. The curious thing is that if you go to a meteorite you find a predominance of the same thing."

Another unanswered question
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Contact: Ann Cairns
acairns@geosociety.org
303-357-1056
Geological Society of America
3-Nov-2003


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