How and where did life originate? Some of the recent theories suggest that it originated in the outer space! Does it affect our understanding of the preciousness of life?

All living beings need cells and energy to replicate. Without these fundamental building blocks, living organisms could not exist. Little was known about a key element in the building blocks, phosphates, until now. University of Hawaii (UH) at Manoa researchers, in collaboration with colleagues in France and Taiwan, provide “compelling new evidence that this component for life was generated in outer space and delivered to Earth in its first one billion years by meteorites or comets.” The phosphorus compounds were then incorporated in biomolecules found in cells in living beings on Earth.

The breakthrough research is outlined in “An Interstellar Synthesis of Phosphorus Oxoacids,” authored by UH Manoa researchers Andrew Turner, now assistant professor at the University of Pikeville, and UH Manoa chemistry Professor Ralf Kaiser in the journal Nature Communications.

According to this study, phosphates and diphosphoric acid are two major elements that are essential for these building blocks in molecular biology. They are the main constituents of chromosomes, the carriers of genetic information in which DNA (deoxyribo nucleic acid) is found. Together with phospholipids in cell membranes and adenosine triphosphate, which function as energy carriers in cells, they form self-replicating material present in all living organisms, says ScienceDaily, an American website that aggregates and publishes press releases about science.

In an ultra-high vacuum chamber cooled down to 5 K in the WM Keck Research Laboratory in Astro-chemistry at UH Manoa, the Hawaii team replicated interstellar icy grains coated with carbon dioxide and water, which are ubiquitous in cold molecular clouds, and phosphine. When exposed to ionising radiation in the form of high-energy electrons to simulate the cosmic rays in space, multiple phosphorus oxoacids like phosphoric acid and diphosphoric acid were synthesized via non-equilibrium reactions.

“On Earth, phosphine is lethal to living beings,” said Turner, lead author. “But in the interstellar medium, an exotic phosphine chemistry can promote rare chemical reaction pathways to initiate the formation of bio-relevant molecules such as oxoacids of phosphorus, which eventually might spark the molecular evolution of life as we know it.”

“Since comets contain at least partially the remnants of the material of the proto-planetary disk that formed our solar system, these compounds might be traced back to the interstellar medium wherever sufficient phosphine in interstellar ices is available,” said Cornelia Meinert of the University of Nice, France.

Upon delivery to Earth by meteorites or comets, these phosphorus oxoacids might have been available for Earth’s pre-biotic phosphorus chemistry. Hence, an understanding of the facile synthesis of these oxoacids is essential to untangle the origin of water-soluble pre-biotic phosphorus compounds and how they might have been incorporated into organisms not only on Earth, but also potentially in our universe as well.

Prof CD Varghese, St Thomas College, Thrissur, who has done extensive work on red rains, occurring from 25 July to 23 September 2001, agrees with these suggestions. His assumption is that the red rains also are of s possible extraterrestrial origin.

If proved right, this theory that light has an extraterrestrial origin does not diminish the significance of life. As far as we know life is to be found only on one little planet. Even it may be found elsewhere, it does not diminish the uniqueness and preciousness of life. In its complexity and marvelous design, life is a remarkable miracle. We are part of it and proud of it!

(The writer is professor of science and religion and author of Death: Live it!)

Kuruvilla Pandikattu