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Astrobiology. 2003 Summer;3(2):291-304.

The catalytic potential of cosmic dust: implications for prebiotic chemistry in the solar nebula and other protoplanetary systems.

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International Space University, Strasbourg Central Campus, Illkirch-Graffenstaden, France.


The synthesis of important prebiotic molecules is fundamentally reliant on basic starting ingredients: water, organic species [e.g., methane (CH(4))], and reduced nitrogen compounds [e.g., ammonia (NH(3)), methyl cyanide (CH(3)CN) etc.]. However, modern studies conclude that the primordial Earth's atmosphere was too rich in CO, CO(2), and water to permit efficient synthesis of such reduced molecules as envisioned by the classic Miller-Urey experiment. Other proposed sources of terrestrial nitrogen reduction, like those within submarine vent systems, also seem to be inadequate sources of chemically reduced C-H-O-N compounds. Here, we demonstrate that nebular dust analogs have impressive catalytic properties for synthesizing prebiotic molecules. Using a catalyst analogous to nebular iron silicate condensate, at temperatures ranging from 500K to 900K, we catalyzed both the Fischer-Tropsch conversion of CO and H(2) to methane and water, and the corresponding Haber-Bosch synthesis of ammonia from N(2) and H(2). Remarkably, when CO, N(2), and H(2) were allowed to react simultaneously, these syntheses also yielded nitrogen-containing organics such as methyl amine (CH(3)NH(2)), acetonitrile (CH(3)CN), and N-methyl methylene imine (H(3)CNCH(2)). A fundamental consequence of this work for astrobiology is the potential for a natural chemical pathway to produce complex chemical building blocks of life throughout our own Solar System and beyond.

[Indexed for MEDLINE]

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