Comet 67P carries two ingredients for life: glycine, phosphorus

Conclusive evidence of amino acid, DNA-builder detected by Rosetta spacecraft

comet 67P

KEY INGREDIENTS  Phosphorus and glycine, both essential to life, have been found at comet 67P, seen in this March 29 picture from the Rosetta spacecraft.


Two more of the ingredients for life as we know it have turned up in space, this time from a comet orbiting the sun. While hints of both have been seen in comets before, this is the clearest evidence to date.

Glycine, the smallest of the 20 amino acids that build proteins, is floating in the tenuous atmosphere of comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, researchers report online May 27 in Science Advances. Comet 67P’s atmosphere also holds phosphorus, which is essential to DNA and RNA. Both detections support the idea that comets are at least partly responsible for seeding early Earth with material needed for life.

The phosphorus, glycine and a handful of other organic molecules were detected by the European Space Agency’s Rosetta spacecraft, which has been in orbit around 67P since August 2014 (SN: 9/6/14, p. 8). Kathrin Altwegg, a planetary scientist at the University of Bern in Switzerland, led the study.

Previous searches for glycine in comets Hale-Bopp and C/1996 B2 (Hyakutake) turned up nothing. Glycine was seen in samples from the Stardust mission, which flew through the tail of comet Wild 2 in 2004 and brought comet dust back to Earth, but those measurements were complicated by lab contamination. Scientists have detected hints of phosphorus in comet Halley.

Life’s ingredients keep turning up in cosmic environments. Meteorites carry amino acids and simple sugars have been seen in interstellar clouds(SN: 10/9/04, p. 237). And several of the essential molecules for DNA and RNA, such as ribose, have been created in laboratory experiments that simulate ice grains exposed to ultraviolet radiation from young stars (SN: 4/30/16, p. 18).

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