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Biomass preservation in impact melt ejecta


Meteorites can have played a role in the delivery of the building blocks of life to Earth only if organic compounds are able to survive the high pressures and temperatures of an impact event. Although experimental impact studies have reported the survival of organic compounds1,2,3,4,5,6, there are uncertainties in scaling experimental conditions to those of a meteorite impact on Earth1,2,3,4,5,6 and organic matter has not been found in highly shocked impact materials in a natural setting. Impact glass linked to the 1.2-km-diameter Darwin crater in western Tasmania7,8,9 is strewn over an area exceeding 400 km2 and is thought to have been ejected by a meteorite impact about 800 kyr ago into terrain consisting of rainforest and swamp7,10. Here we use pyrolysis–gas chromatography–mass spectrometry to show that biomarkers representative of plant species in the local ecosystem—including cellulose, lignin, aliphatic biopolymer and protein remnants—survived the Darwin impact. We find that inside the impact glass the organic components are trapped in porous carbon spheres. We propose that the organic material was captured within impact melt and preserved when the melt quenched to glass, preventing organic decomposition since the impact. We suggest that organic material can survive capture and transport in products of extreme impact processing, at least for a Darwin-sized impact event.

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Figure 1: Scanning electron microscopy (SEM) image of a carbonaceous inclusion from Darwin glass.
Figure 2: SEM microcommuted tomography images.
Figure 3: Total ion chromatogram.


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This work was supported by STFC through the UK Cosmochemistry Analysis Network (UK-CAN) at The Natural History Museum. The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) provided access to beam time at Surrey Ion Beam Centre. Z.M. acknowledges financial support by the Royal Society. Sample collection was supported by: University of Tasmania, Department of Primary Industry Water and Environment (Tas.) and Barringer Crater Company. Tasmanian Aboriginals are the traditional owners of Darwin glass and Darwin crater.

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Authors and Affiliations



K.T.H. discovered the inclusions, planned the project and wrote the manuscript with P.A.B., who also helped interpret data. M.J.B. and C.J. collected and interpreted ion beam data. R.M., Z.M. and M.S. collected and interpreted organic matter data. D.B. and V.S. carried out TEM analyses. L.E.H. collected XuM images. S.V. collected and interpreted carbon isotope data. G.C. carried out XRD analyses and helped interpret data.

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Correspondence to Kieren Torres Howard.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

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Howard, K., Bailey, M., Berhanu, D. et al. Biomass preservation in impact melt ejecta. Nature Geosci 6, 1018–1022 (2013).

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