Carbonaceous meteorites as a source of sugar-related organic compounds for the early Earth

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The much-studied Murchison meteorite is generally used as the standard reference for organic compounds in extraterrestrial material. Amino acids and other organic compounds1 important in contemporary biochemistry are thought to have been delivered to the early Earth by asteroids and comets, where they may have played a role in the origin of life2,3,4. Polyhydroxylated compounds (polyols) such as sugars, sugar alcohols and sugar acids are vital to all known lifeforms—they are components of nucleic acids (RNA, DNA), cell membranes and also act as energy sources. But there has hitherto been no conclusive evidence for the existence of polyols in meteorites, leaving a gap in our understanding of the origins of biologically important organic compounds on Earth. Here we report that a variety of polyols are present in, and indigenous to, the Murchison and Murray meteorites in amounts comparable to amino acids. Analyses of water extracts indicate that extraterrestrial processes including photolysis and formaldehyde chemistry could account for the observed compounds. We conclude from this that polyols were present on the early Earth and therefore at least available for incorporation into the first forms of life.

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Figure 1: Polyols identified in the Murchison and Murray carbonaceous meteorites.
Figure 2: Selected mass spectra of t-BDMS and TMS derivatives of standards and corresponding compounds from Murchison and Murray.
Figure 3: Polyols from meteorites and laboratory synthesis.


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We thank A. Weber and J. Cronin for discussions and comments on the manuscript; and C. Asiyo and T. Esposito for assistance with figures. This work was supported by the Exobiology Program of NASA.

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Correspondence to George Cooper.

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Cooper, G., Kimmich, N., Belisle, W. et al. Carbonaceous meteorites as a source of sugar-related organic compounds for the early Earth. Nature 414, 879–883 (2001) doi:10.1038/414879a

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