Buckyballs clue to mass extinction 250 million years ago

Earth's most severe mass extinction - an event 250 million years ago that wiped out 90 percent of all marine species and 70 percent of land vertebrates - was triggered by a collision with a comet or asteroid, according to a team led by The University of Washington, Seattle, USA. Evidence is based upon elegant findings involving carbon molecules called buckminsterfullerenes (C60, Buckyballs) with the gases helium and argon trapped inside their cage structures.

The scientists do not know the site of the impact 250 million years ago, when all Earth's land formed a supercontinent called Pangea. However, the space body left a calling card - a much higher level of complex carbon molecules called buckminsterfullerenes, or Buckyballs, with the noble (or chemically nonreactive) gases helium and argon trapped inside their cage structures. Fullerenes, which contain 60 or more carbon atoms and have a structure resembling a soccer ball or a geodesic dome, are named for Buckminster Fuller, who invented the geodesic dome.

The researchers know these particular Buckyballs are extraterrestrial because the noble gases trapped inside have an unusual ratio of isotopes. For instance, terrestrial helium is mostly helium-4 and contains only a small amount of helium-3, while extraterrestrial helium - the kind found in these fullerenes - is mostly helium-3.

"These things form in carbon stars. That's what's exciting about finding fullerenes as a tracer," according to Luann Becker, one of scientific team involved. The extreme temperatures and gas pressures in carbon stars are perhaps the only way extraterrestrial noble gases could be forced inside a fullerene, she said. These gas-laden fullerenes were formed outside the Solar System, and their concentration at the Permian-Triassic boundary means they were delivered by a comet or asteroid.

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Copyright 1993-2011 Mark Winter [The University of Sheffield and WebElements Ltd, UK]. All rights reserved.