Ribose, a sugar needed for life, has been detected in meteorites

The find suggests that a molecule crucial to life’s genetic machinery hitched a ride to Earth

Space rocks hitting Earth illustration

Space rocks that fell on a young Earth (illustrated) could have carried with them ribose, a molecule essential for life’s genetic machinery. This sugar now has been found in two meteorites.

NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center Conceptual Image Lab

Space rocks that fell to Earth contain ribose, an essential molecule for life’s genetic machinery, and other related sugars. The finding, reported online November 18 in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, lends support to the idea that many of life’s ingredients were delivered to Earth by interplanetary debris.

Many organic molecules have been found in space. Comet Lovejoy, for example, carts around sugar and alcohol, the base ingredients for a decent interplanetary cocktail (SN: 10/23/15). But until now, no one had confirmed an extraterrestrial source for ribose. This molecule forms part of the sugar-phosphate backbone of RNA, molecular workhorses within cells responsible for reading and carrying out instructions encoded in DNA.

Yoshihiro Furukawa, a geochemist at Tohoku University in Sendai, Japan, and colleagues found the ribose, along with several chemically similar sugars, in samples from two meteorites, one collected from Morocco, the other from Australia. By measuring the amounts of carbon-13 in the sugars — a variant of carbon with an extra neutron, which appears more often in organic molecules from space than in their terrestrial counterparts — the team found that the compounds likely originated in space and weren’t picked up on Earth.

ribose model
A model of the molecule ribose sits next to the Murchison meteorite, which was collected in Australia and is one of two space rocks where the life-essential compound has been found.Yoshihiro Furukawa

The team suspects that the sugars formed from chemical reactions between water and formaldehyde in the meteorites long ago. Previous lab work in a simulated space environment — where ultraviolet light irradiated chilled water, ammonia and methanol — has also shown that ribose could form on interstellar ice grains (SN: 4/7/16).  Other similar experiments have done the same for ribose’s chemical cousin deoxyribose, which helps form the backbone of DNA (SN: 12/19/18).

Christopher Crockett is an Associate News Editor. He was formerly the astronomy writer from 2014 to 2017, and he has a Ph.D. in astronomy from the University of California, Los Angeles.

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