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Researchers Discover Meteorite Brought Never-Before-Seen Ingredients for Life

Update Date: Sep 11, 2013 02:16 AM EDT

Scientists have made a significant finding following a meteorite found in California last year contained organic molecules, suggesting an extraterrestrial source for the evolution of life on Earth.

Researchers at Arizona State University found the so-called Sutter's Mill meteorite, which burst into a spectacular fireball over California in 2012, holds organic molecules not previously detected in any meteorites. This suggests a far greater availability of extraterrestrial organic molecules than previously imagined that could have contributed to molecular evolution on the early Earth.

The rapid recovery of the California meteorite allowed scientists to study for the first time a primitive meteorite with little exposure to the elements, providing the most pristine look yet at the surface of primitive asteroids, a university release said Tuesday.

"Their composition therefore has always been seen as an indication that the precursors to the evolution that led to the origins of life could have come from the extraterrestrial material of meteorites," study lead author Sandra Pizzarello, a biochemist at Arizona State University in Tempe, according to "Since the origins of life are utterly unknown, the idea has its merits."

The organic chemicals in meteorites can be removed with the aid of solvents. Speculation regarding the origin of life is based on the notion that it arose from a "prebiotic" soup of organic molecules, perhaps delivered in part by meteorites.

Initially, fragments of the Sutter's Mill meteorite apparently possessed fewer dissolvable organic compounds left after solvent extraction compared to other similar meteorites.

"You may say that it was a disappointment," Pizzarello said.

However, the researchers at Arizona State University tried dissolving the fragments in conditions mimicking hydrothermal vents on Earth, the environment often seen in the early Earth that life might have arisen within. Upon such treatment, the rocks released organic molecules not previously detected in similar meteorites. The findings that suggest there are far more organic materials available via meteorite for planetary environments than scientists assumed. 

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