Hydrogen and Fossil Remnants of Life: Universal Chemistry

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Allan Hills Meteorite NASA image

NASA scientists believed that this rock (labeled meteorite) was proof that primitive life once existed on Mars. Image courtesy of NASA.

Scientists believe elemental hydrogen appeared first after the Big Bang, we still find atoms of hydrogen throughout the Universe.

We will also find the hydrogen atom throughout the chemistry of life, in enzymes, cell walls, proteins and DNA as well. So it has become important for scientists to discern how we utilize the atoms and molecules of life. New research provides techniques for determining the presence of organic elements and even fossil remnants – is there life out there?

Methods of Discerning Hydrogen Atoms

An early method of discerning hydrogen atoms was in magnetic resonance, a method that matured from war time research (WW II).  The method relied upon shining radiation upon a sample of molecule; the chemist read the resultant ‘spectrum.’  This method, routinely used by synthetic chemists, relies upon the chemist to’ tease out’ molecular connectivity.

The pervasive nature of hydrogen-containing organic molecules presents the researcher with an interesting problem when dating fossilized remnants of past life. Is there a surefire way to discern the presence of past life without doubt? The case in point from the past 20 years is the Alan Hills meteorite.

Alan Hills Meteorite

If you can recall, in 1997 NASA researchers made the startling claim of fossilized remains of life from a Martian meteorite. Not only did the stone in question appear to contain fossils, but the researchers believed they found organic molecules as well. The debate seems, for the most part, settled against the existence of Martian fossils. However, as with most human endeavors, absolute proof for some of us hinges on traveling to the ‘Red Planet’ and performing exhaustive surveys.

Electron Spin Resonance (ESR)

An exciting development surfaced in publication form during the past year. A new technique, electron spin resonance (or ESR), has been utilized in (bio)-molecules for at least 50 years. However, the excitement rests upon utilizing ESR on meteorites and ‘fossilized’ remains from Archaean era of Earth’s past. Fossils from the Archaean era date to the beginning of life on Earth, so let’s look at just one publication of note.

The publication appeared in the journal Astrobiology in October of this year. The title of the article is: Nuclear Magnetic Signatures in the Carbonaceous Matter of Ancient Cherts: Comparison with Carbonaceous Meteorites.

In short, the authors sampled two separate carbonaceous meteorites and fossilized remains of Earthly origin (cherts) as well. The spectra of the meteorites are indicative of ‘geology and molecular constituents’ consistent with their origins with no fossils. The fossilized Earthly sample confirmed their origins as well. So the experiments demonstrated that it could ‘tease out’ the differences between fossilized samples from meteoritic and Earthly based samples under suitable conditions.

Universal Nature of Origin Experiments

As a matter of fact, the universal nature of hydrogen forces one to re-examine the ways that experiments are used to collect and interpret data when attempting to understand the nature of life and our origins.

Resource:

Gourier, Didier, Olivier Delpoux, and Laurent Binet. Nuclear Magnetic Biosignatures in the Carbonaceous Matter of Ancient Cherts : Comparison with Carbonaceous Meteorites. Astrobiology,  13, no. 10 (2013): 932–947. doi:10.1089/ast.2013.0971.

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