Did micrometeorites kickstart life on Earth? In a new publication about dust from from asteroid Ryugu, Japanese scientists reveal that more than twenty types of amino acids have been detected in samples brought to Earth on Japan’s Hayabusa2 space probe. These findings confirm — for the first time — that organic compounds exist on asteroids in space.
In December 2020, a capsule that had been carried on a six-year mission by Hayabusa2 delivered more than 5.4 grams of surface material to Earth from the Ryugu asteroid, located over 300 million kilometers away. The discovery is groundbreaking because it could hold clues to understanding the origins of life on Earth.
This is yet another confirmation that the building blocks necessary for the construction of protocells in the primordial soup of ancient Earth are common in space. Prior to this discovery, scientists had detected more than 70 different complex organic molecules in space rocks. These occurred mainly in carbon-rich meteorites (known as C-chondrites) retrieved on Earth. For example, meteorite Murchison (Australia, 1969) and the first micrometeorites Michel Maurette discovered in Antarctica. Now, these building blocks have also been found in the cosmic dust brought back to Earth on Japan’s recent probe, Hayabusa2.
Some of the most interesting micrometeorites are the unmelted ones, some of which are pictured in this article. They contain a wide variety of organic molecules: Amino acids, lipids, sugar, etc. Which role, if any, did they play when life began on Earth?
A few months ago, I wrote that my dream came true! In one day, the National History Museum in Oslo decided to feature my work in a permanent exhibit and I was invited to join a groundbreaking research group investigating the origins of life. Dr. Irep Gözen’s teams are studying prebiotic nanomembranes and nanotubes and I have delivered cosmic dust particles to them for analysis in further experiments.
After all, perhaps the smallest particles in the universe will give clues to one of the greatest questions of all time: How did life began on Earth?