NASA Researchers: DNA Building Blocks Can Be Made in Space

NASA-funded researchers have evidence that some building blocks of DNA, the molecule that carries the genetic instructions for life, found in meteorites were likely created in space. The research gives support to the theory that a "kit" of ready-made parts created in space and delivered to Earth by meteorite and comet impacts assisted the origin of life.

"People have been discovering components of DNA in meteorites since the 1960's, but researchers were unsure whether they were really created in space or if instead they came from contamination by terrestrial life," said Dr. Michael Callahan of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md. "For the first time, we have three lines of evidence that together give us confidence these DNA building blocks actually were created in space." Callahan is lead author of a paper on the discovery appearing in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America.

The discovery adds to a growing body of evidence that the chemistry inside asteroids and comets is capable of making building blocks of essential biological molecules. For example, previously, these scientists at the Goddard Astrobiology Analytical Laboratory have found amino acids in samples of comet Wild 2 from NASA’s Stardust mission, and in various carbon-rich meteorites. Amino acids are used to make proteins, the workhorse molecules of life, used in everything from structures like hair to enzymes, the catalysts that speed up or regulate chemical reactions.

In the new work, the Goddard team ground up samples of twelve carbon-rich meteorites, nine of which were recovered from Antarctica. They extracted each sample with a solution of formic acid and ran them through a liquid chromatograph, an instrument that separates a mixture of compounds. They further analyzed the samples with a mass spectrometer, which helps determine the chemical structure of compounds.

The team found adenine and guanine, which are components of DNA called nucleobases, as well as hypoxanthine and xanthine. DNA resembles a spiral ladder; adenine and guanine connect with two other nucleobases to form the rungs of the ladder. They are part of the code that tells the cellular machinery which proteins to make. Hypoxanthine and xanthine are not found in DNA, but are used in other biological processes.

Also, in two of the meteorites, the team discovered for the first time trace amounts of three molecules related to nucleobases: purine, 2,6-diaminopurine, and 6,8-diaminopurine; the latter two almost never used in biology. These compounds have the same core molecule as nucleobases but with a structure added or removed.

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