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Proceedings Paper

For which compounds do we search in extraterrestrial samples for evidence of abiotic and/or biotic chemistry?
Author(s): Jeffrey L. Bada; Luann Becker; Gene D. McDonald
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Paper Abstract

Any strategy for investigating whether abiotic and/or biotic organic molecules are present on planetary bodies in the solar system should focus on compounds which are readily synthesized under plausible prebiotic conditions, play an essential role in biochemistry as we know it and have properties such as chirality (handedness) which can be used to distinguish between abiotic vs. biotic origins. Amino acids are one of the few compound classes that fulfill all these requirements. They are synthesized in high yields in prebiotic simulation experiments, are one of the more abundant types of organic compounds present in carbonaceous meteorites and only the L-enantiomers are used in the proteins and enzymes in life on Earth. In contrast, polycylic aromatic hydrocarbons which have recently been detected in some Martian meteorites, have no role in biochemistry on Earth, and their molecular architecture, with the possible exception of the stable isotope composition, cannot be used to determine whether they were produced by biotic or abiotic processes. Recent results indicate that amino acids and their amine decomposition products can be directly isolated from samples using sublimation (450 degree(s) to 750 degree(s)C) under partial vacuum, thus eliminating the use of the aqueous reagents commonly used in the laboratory-based isolation of amino acids. A relatively new technology which shows promise for spacecraft-based amino acid analysis is microchip-based capillary electrophoresis. The actual separation hardware, including buffer reservoirs and derivatization reaction chambers, can be etched onto glass microchips with dimensions on the order of cm. This methodology offers the best potential for a compact, rugged, low-mass instrument package for in situ amino acid analyses during future space missions to Mars, Europa and comets.

Paper Details

Date Published: 11 July 1997
PDF: 6 pages
Proc. SPIE 3111, Instruments, Methods, and Missions for the Investigation of Extraterrestrial Microorganisms, (11 July 1997); doi: 10.1117/12.278765
Show Author Affiliations
Jeffrey L. Bada, Scripps Institution of Oceanography (United States)
Luann Becker, Scripps Institution of Oceanography and NASA Ames Research Ctr. (United States)
Gene D. McDonald, Cornell Univ. (United States)

Published in SPIE Proceedings Vol. 3111:
Instruments, Methods, and Missions for the Investigation of Extraterrestrial Microorganisms
Richard B. Hoover, Editor(s)

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