Scientists Find Sugar In Meteorites, Now Let Me Lick Them

A scientist analysing a fragment of the Murchison meteorite. (Photo: United States Department of Energy, Wikimedia Commons)

Researchers found evidence of sugar molecules in primitive meteorites, according to a new study. Now, if you please, I would like to taste the rocks.

Yes, I understand that sugar is a family of molecules that consists of more than just the sucrose molecules I use to make my coffee a little more exciting. In fact, ribose, one of the sugar molecules found on these rocks, is an essential biological molecule that serves as a building block of genetic material. I don’t care. Let me lick it.

The researchers based in Japan and the United States analysed three carbon-containing meteorites called chondrites, thought to be among the meteorites that have changed the least since the start of the solar system. That included the Murchison meteorite, one of the most-studied meteorites on Earth, a 100 kilogram+ rock that fell in Australia in 1969. They analysed samples of these meteorites in the laboratory for sugars, finding at least four kinds of sugar molecules: ribose, arabinose, xylose and lyxose. A quick Google search reveals that all four of these molecules have pleasant, sweet tastes.

Then, they measured the fraction of carbon-13, a slightly heavier version of carbon, that the molecules contained. In some of the samples, there was extra carbon-13, more than would be expected from molecules found in the dirt or plants, demonstrating that the molecules could have been of extraterrestrial origin. The researchers published their results this week in the Proceedings of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences.

Most people value ribose for reasons aside from its flavour: It forms the backbone of ribonucleic acid, or RNA, the genetic material used by our cells to produce the proteins that make us who we are. Finding ribose in the oldest meteorites provides extra evidence that we’re star stuff; that the molecules that produced us could have formed in the earliest days of the solar system. Scientists think these sugars form via a “formose-like reaction,” which turns a class of molecules called aldehydes into sugars in the presence of heat and alkaline molecules.

Sugars join a variety of other organic molecules found in carbonaceous chondrites, including the amino acids that produce proteins and the nucleobase molecules that RNA uses to encode data. It seems as though you could construct an entire RNA molecule from stuff found in these meteorites.

Back to my main point. I understand there is only a trace amount of sugar in these meteorites. But I know that geologists lick rocks all the time. And now this study has planted the seed in my mind that meteorites might be a real flavour bomb; amino acids have a variety of flavours, from sour to savoury. Add in all of these sugars, and you’ve practically got a gourmet meal. Let me taste the space rocks.

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