Comet impacts’ candidature for origin of life

Most researchers concerned with the origin of life acknowledge that some preparatory organic chemicals would have been required, whose origin Darwin ascribed to a ‘warm, little pool’, and Haldane and Oparin to electrical discharges in the early atmosphere; both lines having been followed-up in practice by more recent scholars. A variety of biologically useful chemical ‘building blocks’ have also been recognised in comets, some meteorites – carbonaceous chondrites – and even in interstellar dust clouds. So one school looks to their supply from outside the Earth system. One possibility has had more scanty attention – the effects of impacts, as the power involved seems overwhelming for the survival of delicate organic molecules. Nir Goldman and his colleagues at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California have had a second look at this unlikely scenario (Goldman, N. et al. 2010. Synthesis of glycine-containing complexes in impacts of comets on early Earth. Nature Chemistry, v. 2, p. 949–954). Their approach has been to examine the implications of impact shock at likely collision speeds followed by post-shock expansion on mixtures of water, ammonia, carbon monoxide and dioxide, and methanol that are almost guaranteed in the make-up of most cometary ices. Their modelling suggests that carbon-nitrogen bonds form under shock conditions in long chain compounds. In the aftermath of huge collision shock the impact products undergo rapid expansion and cooling during which the chains can break down to simpler molecules, including some akin to amino acids such as glycene. The bombardment of Earth in the Hadean Eon (4.5-3.8 Ga) involved huge masses of material, almost certainly some delivered by icy comets that would have greatly increased the amount of water and the number of CHON compounds in the early Earth’s outer parts.

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