Research ArticleGEOCHEMISTRY

Organic matter in extraterrestrial water-bearing salt crystals

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Science Advances  10 Jan 2018:
Vol. 4, no. 1, eaao3521
DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.aao3521

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Direct evidence of complex prebiotic chemistry from a water-rich world in the outer solar system is provided by the 4.5-billion-year-old halite crystals hosted in the Zag and Monahans (1998) meteorites. This study offers the first comprehensive organic analysis of the soluble and insoluble organic compounds found in the millimeter-sized halite crystals containing brine inclusions and sheds light on the nature and activity of aqueous fluids on a primitive parent body. Associated with these trapped brines are organic compounds exhibiting wide chemical variations representing organic precursors, intermediates, and reaction products that make up life’s precursor molecules such as amino acids. The organic compounds also contain a mixture of C-, O-, and N-bearing macromolecular carbon materials exhibiting a wide range of structural order, as well as aromatic, ketone, imine, and/or imidazole compounds. The enrichment in 15N is comparable to the organic matter in pristine Renazzo-type carbonaceous chondrites, which reflects the sources of interstellar 15N, such as ammonia and amino acids. The amino acid content of the Zag halite deviates from the meteorite matrix, supporting an exogenic origin of the halite, and therefore, the Zag meteorite contains organics synthesized on two distinct parent bodies. Our study suggests that the asteroidal parent body where the halite precipitated, potentially asteroid 1 Ceres, shows evidence for a complex combination of biologically and prebiologically relevant molecules.

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