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Chemistry at 10 K

By: William Brown, Biophysicist at the Resonance Science Foundation

In our unification model The Unified Spacememory Network: from cosmogenesis to consciousness [1], we introduce the idea of universal biogenesis, in which we highlight the observation that the universe is not only optimally biophilic—with the constants of nature set within an optimal range for complex states of matter, like the living system, to exist— but that the negentropic ordering dynamics of the universal spacememory network are such that states driving biogenesis will be found ubiquitously throughout the universe. As such, a primary prediction from the model is that wherever in the universe conditions are conducive to organic chemical processes, there is a good probability of finding life, and therefore we should expect to find life on many exoplanets and moons throughout the universe. 

Even before the Unified Spacememory Network it was known that the basic ingredients for the living system can indeed be found ubiquitously: organic molecules such as nucleic acids, amino acids, and membrane lipids can be found in abundance in interstellar space, in nebulae and on comets and meteoroids [2]. As well, water is found in great abundance, comprising the icy body of comets and many other celestial and interstellar bodies.

As such, it is commonly believed that the materials for life, including water, where deposited on the primordial Earth from cometary bodies, so that at the most basic levels life does originate in interstellar nebulae, where the biochemical synthesis of the basic building blocks occur. This in-and-of itself is a form of galactic panspermia [3], although it is quite possible—and one day may be confirmed observationally—that fully formed cells may be dispersed in the interstellar medium and seed primordial planets (and moons) with life that is ready to go from the jump, an observation that would be a confirmation of the primary postulate and prediction of the Unified Spacememory Network.

One issue with the idea of the basic building blocks of life forming in interstellar media and then being deposited on primordial planets is that organic molecules much more complicated than single amino acids have not been observed—therefore raising the question, is the interstellar environment at all conducive to polymerization reactions that would produce the large macromolecules typifying (and necessary) for the living system?

For example, proteins are long chains of amino acids covalently bonded together that interact with water to fold into highly specific 3-dimensional configurations. The chain of amino acids that comprise these polymers are what genes of the DNA code for—genes are sequences of codons that specify a sequential order of amino acids polymerized together in a long chain— and the 3D configurations, and even 4d spatiotemporal configurations of these long polypeptide chains (proteins), are what enable the enzymatic and biochemical pathways that are life.

Experiments in the laboratory that recapitulates the conditions of interstellar space and nebulae have been able to synthesize all the building blocks of life (amino acids, nucleic acids, and lipids) but until recently had not produced a complex polymer like the polypeptides that are the work horses of the cell.

Now, a team of astrobiologists at the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy have shown experimentally that the condensation of carbon atoms on the surface of cold solid particles (cosmic dust) leads to the formation of isomeric polyglycine monomers (a polypeptide chain that is formed from bonding together many glycine amino acids) [4]. The study is reported in Nature Astronomy.

From Max Planck Institute: A new kind of chemical reaction can explain how peptides can form on the icy layers of cosmic dust grains. Those peptides could have been transported to the early Earth by meteorites, asteroids or comets. © S. Krasnokutski / MPIA Graphics Department

The team has shown that the chemistry involves three of the most abundant species (CO, C and NH3) present in star-forming molecular clouds and proceeds via a novel pathway. A remarkable feature is that the research demonstrates that this specific chemical pathway skips the stage of amino acid formation in protein synthesis and occurs in the vacuum of space at 10 kelvin (-263.15 °C). This is important because while liquid water is largely required for the prebiotic synthesis of peptides (amino acids), the secondary stage of polymerization requires the expulsion of water so that there is a condensation of the amino acids. As well, hydrophilic attacks of liquid water will tend to hydrolyze—or break apart chains of amino acids, thus preventing their polymerization and the formation of polypeptides (proteins).

In the laboratory the team of astrophysicists were able to demonstrate the polymerization of a monomeric polypeptide under the conditions of interstellar space in a fashion that bypassed the initial formation of the peptide monomer, circumventing the problem of needing liquid water for amino acid formation and subsequent dehydration: showing that in principle polypeptides can form without the presence of ionizing radiation or liquid water, at 10 K. The research team has for the first time demonstrated that the formation of large complex organic molecules is possible in the interstellar medium. The study is significant because delivery of biopolymers formed by this chemistry to rocky planets in the habitable zone might, as we discussed, be an important element in the origins of life.

If large organic macromolecules and polymers can form in interstellar space, it will mean a higher likelihood of finding life in many planetary and satellite systems within habitable zones or conditions— a great abundance and diversity of life in the universe, just as is predicted in our manuscript the Unified Spacememory Network. Once this has been observationally verified, the next postulate of our unification model can be addressed: if life is not an accidental happenstance that occurs infrequently, is it possible that life and the consciousness associated with the living system play a more integral and dynamic role in the physics of the universe than merely a grand epiphenomenological accident?

References

[1] N. Haramein, W. D. Brown, and A. Val Baker, “The Unified Spacememory Network: from Cosmogenesis to Consciousness,” Neuroquantology, vol. 14, no. 4, Jun. 2016, doi: 10.14704/nq.2016.14.4.961.

[2] S. A. Krasnokutski, “Did life originate from low-temperature areas of the Universe?,” Low Temperature Physics, vol. 47, no. 3, pp. 199–205, Mar. 2021, doi: 10.1063/10.0003519.

[3] I. Ginsburg, M. Lingam, and A. Loeb, “Galactic Panspermia,” ApJL, vol. 868, no. 1, p. L12, Nov. 2018, doi: 10.3847/2041-8213/aaef2d.

[4] S. A. Krasnokutski, K.-J. Chuang, C. Jäger, N. Ueberschaar, and T. Henning, “A pathway to peptides in space through the condensation of atomic carbon,” Nat Astron, vol. 6, no. 3, Art. no. 3, Mar. 2022, doi: 10.1038/s41550-021-01577-9.

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