Research ArticleGEOCHEMISTRY

Origin of alkylphosphonic acids in the interstellar medium

See allHide authors and affiliations

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.

This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial license, which permits use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, so long as the resultant use is not for commercial advantage and provided the original work is properly cited.

View Full Text