• Jonathan Zhou

NASA discovers key ingredient for life in space


NASA scientists extract the HMT from meteorites.

NASA’s discovery of HMT, or hexamethylenetetramine, made just a few weeks ago, may have further proved the existence of extraterrestrial life. In fact, this theory itself is not new; as early as 2002, NASA already discovered amino acids by shining ultraviolet light on meteorites.


According to Dr. Max Bernstein, a chemist leading the project, “Amino acids can be made in the dense interstellar clouds where planetary systems and stars are made. Our experiments suggest that amino acids should be everywhere, wherever there are stars and planets. This finding may shed light on the origin of life itself.”


Although it is certain that amino acids are found in space, the exact process of their formation remains a mystery. Furthermore, it is important to note that while amino acids are crucial for life, it is possible for non-biological processes to synthesize them. So their presence does not directly prove the existence of life. Amino acids are usually formed with a combination of formaldehyde and ammonia, which are both substances that vaporize in outer space. Therefore, scientists are still unsure of how amino acids form in space.


HMT has always been a prime suspect for the formation of amino acids. HMT is an organic compound that does not evaporate at room temperature. It also produces formaldehyde and ammonia when heated in water. According to Yasuhiro Oba, one of the main researchers responsible for the discovery, “HMT is in general a significant product (up to 60% by weight) in the total organic products.” However, HMT has never been found in asteroids, causing many to be suspicious of its importance.


This all changed when NASA and its collaborators discovered the existence of HMT in meteorites a few weeks ago. Their studies suggest that HMT breaks down in laboratory conditions, which explains why researchers could not discover it before. NASA’s researchers used a unique method of extraction to preserve as much as possible, leading to the discovery of HMT in meteorites.


Lastly, to confirm that the HMT originated from the meteor itself, and not from contamination, the researchers performed the experiment again with a meteor fragment which was kept in a sealed container for years. This confirms that HMT is responsible for the formation of amino acids in asteroids.


According to Jason Dworkin, a researcher at the SETI Institute, an institute dedicated to finding the origin of life, “This finding suggests that Earth may have been seeded with amino acids from space in its earliest days. And, since new stars and planets are formed within the same clouds in which new amino acids are being created, this increases the odds that life also evolved in places other than Earth. Taken in combination, these results suggest that interstellar chemistry may have played a significant part in supplying the Earth with some of the organic materials needed to jump-start life.”


This discovery could help topple the most widely accepted theory on the origin of life, the nuclear geyser theory, which suggested that life originated in the high energy environment of nuclear geysers. Supporters of this theory believed that large amounts of radiation in nuclear geysers caused many chemical reactions, and the first amino acids were formed by chance. However, the appearance of amino acids in space implies that the first lifeforms on Earth may have been carried over by a meteorite, completely toppling the most widely accepted theory.


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