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18 Aug 2009, Daily Telegraph


One of the building blocks of life has been discovered in dust and gas collected from the tail of a comet in a major boost for the theory that life came from outer space.


The amino acid glycine was found in samples from comet Wild 2 brought back to Earth by the American Stardust probe.


The substance is one of 20 amino acids which join up in chains to create millions of different proteins, the molecules from which all the cells and structures found in living organisms are made.


Although comets are known to carry organic molecules, this is the first time one has been shown to harbour such an important element of life.


A space scientist involved in the research today described the find as “exciting and profound”.


Comets are dirty snowballs of ice and dust which date back to the birth of the Solar System.

Some scientists believe they may have planted seeds of life, as well as vast quantities of water, on the Earth.


The American space agency Nasa’s Stardust probe passed through dense gas and dust surrounding the icy heart of Wild 2 on January 2, 2004.

As it did so, a fly paper-like collection grid made from an ultralight material called aerogel captured samples.

This was stored in a capsule which was flown back to Earth and parachuted to waiting scientists on January 15, 2006.


Since then experts around the world have been busy analysing the samples in their laboratories.


Dr Jamie Elsila, from Nasa’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, said: “Glycine is an amino acid used by living organisms to make proteins, and this is the first time an amino acid has been found in a comet.

“Our discovery supports the theory that some of life’s ingredients formed in space and were delivered to Earth long ago by meteorite and comet impacts.”


Dr Carl Pilcher, director of the Nasa Astrobiology Institute which helped to fund the research, said: “The discovery of glycine in a comet supports the idea that the fundamental building blocks of life are prevalent in space, and strengthens the argument that life in the universe may be common rather than rare.”


When glycine was detected in the samples collected by Stardust, scientists first had to be sure it was not put there as a result of Earthly contamination.

Sophisticated isotopic analysis eventually ruled out that possibility.

Isotopes are versions of an element with different weights. Glycine from a comet would be expected to contain heavier isotopes of carbon than glycine from Earth, and that is what the scientists found.

“We discovered that the Stardust-returned glycine has an extraterrestrial carbon isotope signature, indicating that it originated on the comet,” said Dr Elsila.


Stardust principal investigator Professor Donald Brownlee, from the University of Washington in Seattle, said: “The discovery of amino acids in the returned comet sample is very exciting and profound.


“It is also a remarkable triumph that highlights the advancing capabilities of laboratory studies of primitive extraterrestrial materials.”


The findings were presented at the annual meeting of the American Chemical Society in Washington. They are due to be published in the journal Meteoritics and Planetary Science.





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