New discoveries of the Solar System are often met with the wider interest of the public and the entire scientific community, so when it was reported that scientists might have found extraterrestrial proteins in meteorites, the world took notice.
A team of scientists claims to have found this “extraterrestrial” protein inside a particular meteorite that fell to the Earth from space around 30 years ago in 1990 in Algeria. It is known as Acfer 086 and was analyzed by a group led by Malcolm McGeoch, and used new techniques to identify the proteins inside of it.
How These Extraterrestrial Proteins in Meteorites Were Discovered
Using high-precision spectrometry, the team analyzed the meteorite, which revealed that there was a novel protein inside it. First, they used sanitized, small drills to collect the material from inside the meteorite. The material was then turned into a powder by combining it with different liquids such as chloroform and water. A laser was fired at the samples, which turned them into gas. Mass spectrometry is easier to study when the samples are in a gaseous form, so this benefitted the scientists a great deal.
The researchers claimed to have found a combination of amino acids, along with other atoms, after observing the gases. They claim that this is evidence of the first discovery of an extraterrestrial protein. The protein is known as Hemolithin and is made of different chains of hydroxyglycine and glycine. It also contains iron, lithium atoms, and oxygen atoms, according to the researchers.
The scientists found that the Hemolithin protein is enriched by deuterium. This is a heavy isotope of hydrogen; it contains a neutron in the nucleus as well as a proton, while normal hydrogen atoms only have a proton and don’t have any neutrons. On Earth, deuterium enrichment is not found in amino acids.
This is a strong indicator of the possibility that the protein comes from a molecular cloud of a protosolar disc. The Hemolithin protein was the first report of such extraterrestrial proteins in meteorites, which is why it is such a huge deal in the scientific community.
Does This Mean That Aliens Exist?
Let’s be clear; the researchers do not make any claims that the presence of the Hemolithin protein is an indication that alien life exists. However, the discovery is still of great interest to the wider astrobiologist community. Proteins on Earth make up the base of all life forms since these proteins are the main workhorses of our cells and perform a huge variety of tasks for every organism.
Finding this kind of protein in outer space shows that complex chemistry that could come from a life form can occur on its own in space. It’s an additional confirmation that this type of chemistry formation can also happen in nature without external forces. The implication is that the likelihood of alien life has increased since protein formation can occur on its own.
You don’t need a certified miracle or a laboratory to get the biochemical systems of organisms up and running. This essentially means that there is a chance of life across the cosmos.
Other Evidence for Alien Life
The notion that alien life could exist in the universe isn’t considered strange anymore. Researchers are increasingly finding evidence of the existence of complex chemical systems that go beyond the sphere of Earth. For example, Saturn’s largest moon, Titan, has big organic molecules swirling in its dense atmosphere. The traces of the building blocks of protein, amino acids, have also been detected on comets and in meteorites.
Critique of the Paper
Talking about the wider implications of the study, however, may be a step too soon. The paper by the research team who found the proteins is still under review. There are many researchers who aren’t exactly on board with the results – to say they’re skeptical is an understatement.
A marine chemistry professor at the University of California, Jeffery Bada, doesn’t find the results of the paper particularly impressive. The main problem Jeffery Bada has is that the presence of hydroxyglycine has never been reported in prebiotic experiments or in meteorites ever before.
He also suggested that the hydroxyglycine the research team found is not found in any proteins either. This is why it is strange that this is the amino acid that was found in the meteorite.
Lee Cronin also believes that the results cannot be true. He suggests that the compound that the researchers claim to be in the meteorite isn’t there since they are working with incomplete data. According to Lee Cronin, the protein they have discovered is very unlikely to occur in nature since the structure doesn’t make any sense.
However, a lot can happen as we move forward with this paper. As mentioned earlier, it’s still in the review stage. However, if the discovery is replicated, it will be one of the greatest discoveries in the history of humankind. The discovery of extraterrestrial proteins in meteorites in incredible. For starters, it’s possible confirmation that life can form on its own elsewhere in the universe. With this discovery, and the fact that there are billions of stars in our milky way, it’s truly an exciting time in the realms of astronomy, astrobiology, and all of science, for that matter.