A PRIMITIVE form of cell that could have been responsible for “jump-starting” life on Earth has been created by scientists working for Nasa.
Researchers synthesised the molecules known as “proto-cells”, which are similar to those that make up the cell membranes found in all living things, by accident as they tried to duplicate the conditions of space.
The findings, which are reported today in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, suggest that the conditions that led to the birth of life on Earth were probably not unique to this planet and may not even require a planet at all. They also add weight to the idea that the organic matter that first developed into terrestrial life could have been carried to Earth on comets and meteorites.
Several scientists have proposed that such a process could have been enough to “jump-start” life.
The discovery, which was made at the Nasa Ames Research Centre and the University of California, Santa Cruz, came about when scientists tried to recreate the extemely cold ice particles that make up interstellar clouds, with a view to analysing their properties for use in future Nasa missions. Such clouds are the birthplaces of stars.
When the ice was exposed to harsh ultraviolet radiation, at temperatures close to absolute zero and in a vacuum, the researchers expected to create some chemicals more complex than those originally present in the crystals. They did not, however, expect to find the volume of organic matter that was created.
“We started this work to find the types of compounds that might be in comets, icy planets and moons, providing guidance for future Nasa missions,” Lou Allamandola, who led the research, said.
“Instead, we found that this process transforms some of the simple chemicals that are very common in space into larger molecules which behave in far more complex ways, ways which many people think are critical for the origin of life.”