Research ArticleGEOCHEMISTRY

Origin of alkylphosphonic acids in the interstellar medium

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Science Advances  07 Aug 2019:
Vol. 5, no. 8, eaaw4307
DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.aaw4307


For decades, the source of phosphorus incorporated into Earth’s first organisms has remained a fundamental, unsolved puzzle. Although contemporary biomolecules incorporate P(+V) in their phosphate moieties, the limited bioavailability of phosphates led to the proposal that more soluble P(+III) compounds served as the initial source of phosphorus. Here, we report via laboratory simulation experiments that the three simplest alkylphosphonic acids, soluble organic phosphorus P(+III) compounds, can be efficiently generated in interstellar, phosphine-doped ices through interaction with galactic cosmic rays. This discovery opens a previously overlooked avenue into the formation of key molecules of astrobiological significance and untangles basic mechanisms of a facile synthesis of phosphorus-containing organics in extraterrestrial ices, which can be incorporated into comets and asteroids before their delivery and detection on Earth such as in the Murchison meteorite.

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