Science

All 5 building blocks of DNA, RNA found in meteorites from Canada, U.S., Australia

A fresh examination of meteorites that landed in the United States, Canada and Australia is bolstering the notion that early in Earth's history, such objects may have delivered chemical ingredients vital for the advent of life.

Researchers have found all nucleobases needed to make DNA and RNA in meteorites

A conceptual image shows meteoroids delivering nucleobases to ancient Earth. The nucleobases are represented by structural diagrams with hydrogen atoms as white spheres, carbon as black, nitrogen as blue and oxygen as red. (NASA Goddard/CI Lab/Dan Gallagher/Reuters)

A fresh examination of meteorites that landed in the United States, Canada and Australia is bolstering the notion that early in Earth's history, such objects may have delivered chemical ingredients vital for the advent of life.

Scientists had previously detected on these meteorites three of the five chemical components needed to form DNA, the molecule that carries genetic instructions in living organisms, and RNA, the molecule crucial for controlling the actions of genes. Researchers said on Tuesday they have now identified the final two after fine-tuning the way they analyzed the meteorites.

Unlike in previous work, the methods used this time were more sensitive and did not use strong acids or hot liquid to extract the five components, known as nucleobases, according to astrochemist Yasuhiro Oba of Hokkaido University's Institute of Low Temperature Science in Japan, lead author of the study published in the journal Nature Communications.

Nucleobases are nitrogen-containing compounds crucial in forming DNA's characteristic double-helix structure.

Confirmation of an extraterrestrial origin of a complete set of nucleobases found in DNA and RNA buttresses the theory that meteorites could have been an important source of organic compounds necessary for the emergence of Earth's first living organisms, according to astrobiologist and study co-author Danny Glavin of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland.

The Tagish Lake meteorite fell in northern British Columbia on Jan. 18, 2000. It produced a remarkable fireball as it streaked across the dawn sky, which was witnessed as far away as Whitehorse, Yukon. (Royal Ontario Museum)

Scientists have been seeking to better understand the events that unfolded on Earth that enabled various chemical compounds to come together in a warm, watery setting to form a living microbe able to reproduce itself. The formation of DNA and RNA would be an important milestone, as these molecules essentially contain the instructions to build and operate living organisms.

"There is still much to learn about the chemical steps that led to the origin of life on Earth — the first self-replicating system," Glavin said. "This research certainly adds to the list of chemical compounds that would have been present in the early Earth's prebiotic [existing before the emergence of life] soup."

Where the meteorites were found

The researchers examined material from three meteorites — one that fell in 1950 near the town of Murray in the U.S. state of Kentucky; one that fell in 1969 near the town of Murchison in Australia's Victoria state; and one that fell in 2000 near Tagish Lake in B.C.

All three are classified as carbonaceous chondrites, made of rocky material thought to have formed early in the solar system's history. They are carbon-rich, with the Murchison and Murray meteorites containing about two per cent organic carbon by weight and the Tagish Lake meteorite containing about four per cent organic carbon. Carbon is a primary constituent of organisms on Earth.

"All three meteorites contain a very complex mixture of organic molecules, most of which have not yet been identified," Glavin said.

Earth formed roughly 4.5 billion years ago. In its infancy, it was pelted by meteorites, comets and other material from space. The planet's first organisms were primitive microbes in the primordial seas, and the earliest known fossils are marine microbial specimens dating to roughly 3.5 billion years ago, though there are hints of life in older fossils.

The 5 key ingredients

The two nucleobases, called cytosine and thymine, newly identified in the meteorites may have eluded detection in previous examinations because they possess a more delicate structure than the other three, the researchers said.

The five nucleobases would not have been the only chemical compounds necessary for life. Among other things needed were: amino acids, which are components of proteins and enzymes; sugars, which are part of the DNA and RNA backbone; and fatty acids, which are structural components of cell membranes.

"The present results may not directly elucidate the origin of life on the Earth," Oba said, "but I believe that they can improve our understanding of the inventory of organic molecules on the early Earth before the onset of life."

Add some “good” to your morning and evening.

A variety of newsletters you'll love, delivered straight to you.

Sign up now

Comments

To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

Become a CBC Member

Join the conversation  Create account

Already have an account?

now