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article imageOp-Ed: Life literally from the dust — Cosmic dust, to be exact

By Paul Wallis     Jun 8, 2020 in Science
Jena - “Dust to dust” goes the saying, and it turns out to be much truer than even scripture may have guessed. Dust in space contains amino acids and more. Researchers are pleased and understandably excited.
The research by Max Planck Institute for Astronomy (MPIA) and the University of Jena has uncovered these fantastic compounds formed under ice in space. These are called “prebiotic” molecules, literally, the “before life” structures required for life.
Samples from the Stardust and Rosetta space missions have discovered glycine, which is a proteinogenic (protein-forming) amino acid common to life on Earth, and other materials. The dust is thought to act as a catalyst for the formation of complex molecules using types of radiation as active agents.
The obvious question, naturally, is how these molecules form. The mix of ice and dust may take as long as 100,000 years to form into a fine, fuzzy state as pictured to start the reactions, for example. The results of the research have created a huge field of reference for further study. Researchers hope to duplicate the space environment and study the formation of these materials. The bigger question is the role of cosmic dust in the development of life and its wider role in the origins of life.
The big picture just got a lot bigger
The rise of life is based on a particularly long chain of events. Most heavier atoms form in stars and are donated to the universe by supernovae. This includes organic fundamental atoms like carbon, nitrogen, and oxygen.
It’s a long way, however, from thin chemical soup to producing living things. The theory of life developing in this way has been around for a long time, and to put it mildly, there are quite a few steps missing. The picture is slowly being filled in. There’s a lot of water, carbon, and other organic formative materials in the universe, for example. Organic compounds have been found in meteors and exist in large amounts throughout the universe.
Cosmic dust, however, wasn’t part of the equation, although “dust” is also ubiquitous. Exactly how things like glycine get put together in this environment isn’t yet clear. Space has been traditionally regarded as inimical to life of any kind. Now, it seems, this is where it starts.
As a Show and Tell exercise, the life from the dust is an insight into a range of far more complex processes which weren’t much considered, let alone theorized, to occur in space. This is the sort of fundamental pure research that unlocks whole new processes and maps out natural phenomena which fill in more gaps in knowledge.
Maybe space is like the ocean – A vast region of anything and everything, “infinite diversity in infinite combination”, as the Vulcans say. After all, the entire Table of Elements is sparkling away out there. If so, we’ve got a lot more to learn about the basics of life.
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of
More about cosmic dust biochemical formation, Max Planck Institute for Astronomy, University of Jena, IDIC, organic materials in the universe
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