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NASA finds sugar in meteorites that have fallen to Earth



An international team of scientists has discovered "bio-necessary" sugars in meteorites that also contain other biologically important compounds, according to a NASA press release from Tuesday.

Asteroids – rocky objects near the Earth orbiting the sun – are the parent bodies of most meteorites. The theory suggests that chemical reactions in asteroids can create some of the elements necessary for life.

In a study published on Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, scientists analyzed three meteorites, including one that landed in Australia in 1969 and dates back billions of years. Previous studies also tried to study meteors for sugar – but this time scientists used a different extraction method using hydrochloric acid and water.

Scientists have found sugars such as arabinose and xylose – but the most significant discovery was ribose.

Model of ribose molecular structure found in a meteorite.

Ribose plays an extremely important role in our human biology. It exists in our RNA (ribonucleic acid) molecules and provides messages from our DNA to help build proteins for our body, according to a press release.

"It's amazing that such an ancient material could detect a molecule as delicate as ribose," said Jason Dworkin of NASA, co-author of the study, in a press release.

The discovery of ribose also suggests that RNA has evolved before DNA, giving scientists a clearer picture of how life could arise.

DNA has long been considered a "lifelong template" – but according to a press release, RNA molecules have more options such as replication without the help of other molecules. These additional possibilities, combined with the fact that scientists have not yet found sugars in DNA in meteorites, support the theory that "RNA coordinated the machinery of life before DNA."

Components of life found in meteorites that have fallen to Earth

"The study provides the first direct evidence of the existence of ribose in space and the supply of sugar to Earth," said Yoshihiro Furukawa of Tohoku University, Japan's main study author, in a press release. "Extraterrestrial sugar may have contributed to the creation of RNA on prebiotic Earth, which probably led to life."

Of course, there is a possibility that the meteorites have been contaminated by life on Earth – but tests have shown that this is unlikely and sugars probably come from space.

Now scientists will continue to analyze meteorites to see how abundant these sugars are and how they could affect life on Earth.

This study complements the growing list of evidence that meteorites may have led to life on Earth. Last January, scientists discovered that two meteorites contain other life components: amino acids, hydrocarbons, other organic matter, and traces of liquid water that may come from the first days of our solar system.

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