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Astrobiology. 2019 Jul;19(7):831-848. doi: 10.1089/ast.2018.1927. Epub 2019 Mar 23.

Prebiotic Chemistry of Pluto.

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1NASA Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, California, USA.
2Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Maryland, USA.
3Lowell Observatory, Flagstaff, Arizona, USA.
4Université Grenoble Alpes, CNRS, IPAG, Grenoble, France.
5Applied Physics Laboratory, Johns Hopkins University, Laurel, Maryland, USA.
6California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, California, USA.
7Department of Physics and Astronomy, George Mason University, Fairfax, Virginia, USA.
8Southwest Research Institute, Boulder, Colorado, USA.
9Lunar and Planetary Laboratory, University of Arizona, Tucson, Arizona, USA.


We present the case for the presence of complex organic molecules, such as amino acids and nucleobases, formed by abiotic processes on the surface and in near-subsurface regions of Pluto. Pluto's surface is tinted with a range of non-ice substances with colors ranging from light yellow to red to dark brown; the colors match those of laboratory organic residues called tholins. Tholins are broadly characterized as complex, macromolecular organic solids consisting of a network of aromatic structures connected by aliphatic bridging units (e.g., Imanaka et al., 2004; Materese et al., 2014, 2015). The synthesis of tholins in planetary atmospheres and in surface ices has been explored in numerous laboratory experiments, and both gas- and solid-phase varieties are found on Pluto. A third variety of tholins, exposed at a site of tectonic surface fracturing called Virgil Fossae, appears to have come from a reservoir in the subsurface. Eruptions of tholin-laden liquid H2O from a subsurface aqueous repository appear to have covered portions of Virgil Fossae and its surroundings with a uniquely colored deposit (D.P. Cruikshank, personal communication) that is geographically correlated with an exposure of H2O ice that includes spectroscopically detected NH3 (C.M. Dalle Ore, personal communication). The subsurface organic material could have been derived from presolar or solar nebula processes, or might have formed in situ. Photolysis and radiolysis of a mixture of ices relevant to Pluto's surface composition (N2, CH4, CO) have produced strongly colored, complex organics with a significant aromatic content having a high degree of nitrogen substitution similar to the aromatic heterocycles pyrimidine and purine (Materese et al., 2014, 2015; Cruikshank et al., 2016). Experiments with pyrimidines and purines frozen in H2O-NH3 ice resulted in the formation of numerous nucleobases, including the biologically relevant guanine, cytosine, adenine, uracil, and thymine (Materese et al., 2017). The red material associated with the H2O ice may contain nucleobases resulting from energetic processing on Pluto's surface or in the interior. Some other Kuiper Belt objects also exhibit red colors similar to those found on Pluto and may therefore carry similar inventories of complex organic materials. The widespread and ubiquitous nature of similarly complex organic materials observed in a variety of astronomical settings drives the need for additional laboratory and modeling efforts to explain the origin and evolution of organic molecules. Pluto observations reveal complex organics on a small body that remains close to its place of origin in the outermost regions of the Solar System.


Ice; Nucleobase; Pluto; Tholin


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