News Stories

Life From Space

Scientists working to replicate the harsh conditions of space, with its cold temperatures, radiation and lack of air,have managed to get artificial cell membranes to form, proving that life could have originated in space. For life toexist in cellular form, each cell must be surrounded by a protective membrane. These cells then combine together to form complex life structures.

The membranes resemble primitive cell walls. David Dreamer, a biologist at the University of California at Santa Cruz,said, "This wall is semi-permeable, so that things like water and oxygen can get in and out very easily. That is whatlife requires-it needs to have an inside that is not totally shut off from the outside."

Scientists working on the experiment think that organic compounds from interstellar space may have seeded life on earth. Compounds found on dust from meteorites that fell to earth are able to "self-assemble" into similar bubbles, whichresemble soap bubbles.

The study team was surprised to find that the compounds they created were strikingly similar to some found in a spacerock called the Murchison Meteorite. Dreamer found that compounds in the meteorite, when mixed with water, formedmicroscopic droplets called vesicles, that looked remarkably like cell walls. "To our surprise and delight, we foundvesicular structures formed (in the lab) that looked very much like those we saw in the Murchison material," he said.

Next, the researchers want to find out if cell-like activity can take place within these little bubbles. "We are tryingon purpose to put things like DNA and RNA inside the vesicles," says Jason Dworkin, also of NASA. Together, DNA and RNA form the genetic basis of life. DNA contains the basic instructions for cell activity, while RNA carries them out.

"Scientists believe the molecules needed to make a cell's membrane, and thus for the origin of life, are all overspace," said Louis Allamandola of NASA. "This discovery implies that life could be everywhere in the universe. Thisprocess happens all the time in the dense molecular clouds of space."

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