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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.
A NASA scientist has discovered sugar and several related organic compounds in two meteorites -- providing the first evidence that another fundamental building block of life on Earth might have come from outer space.
Dr. George Cooper and coworkers from the NASA Ames Research Center found the sugary compounds in two carbon-rich (or carbonaceous) meteorites. Previously, researchers had found inside meteorites other organic, carbon-based compounds that play major roles in life on Earth, such as amino acids and carboxylic acids, but no sugars.
These discoveries add an important new piece to the puzzle of the origins of life on Earth, and supports the notion that seeds of life might be spread far and wide around the cosmos.1
"Finding these compounds greatly adds to our understanding of what organic materials could have been present on Earth before life began," Cooper said. "Sugar chemistry appears to be involved in life as far back as our records go." Recent research using ratios of carbon isotopes have pushed the origin of life on Earth to as far back as 3.8 billion years, he said. (An isotope is one of two or more atoms whose nuclei have the same number of protons but different numbers of neutrons.)
"This discovery shows that it's highly likely organic synthesis critical to life has gone on throughout the universe," said Kenneth A. Souza, acting director of astrobiology and space research at Ames. "Then, on Earth, since the other critical elements were in place, life could blossom."
- 1. Carbonaceous meteorites as a source of sugar-related organic compounds for the early Earth,
, Nature, 12/2001, Volume 414, Issue 6866, p.879 - 883, (2001)