Category: Chemistry

Life Began in Clay?

Creation of Adam, Sistine Chapel (Michelangelo)

It does have a certain Biblical ring to it.

A new study from Cornell shows that complex molecules that could potentially aid in the rise of cells can be built from reactions embedded deep in clay:

“We propose that in early geological history clay hydrogel provided a confinement function for biomolecules and biochemical reactions,” said Dan Luo, professor of biological and environmental engineering and a member of the Kavli Institute at Cornell for Nanoscale Science.

In simulated ancient seawater, clay forms a hydrogel — a mass of microscopic spaces capable of soaking up liquids like a sponge. Over billions of years, chemicals confined in those spaces could have carried out the complex reactions that formed proteins, DNA and eventually all the machinery that makes a living cell work. Clay hydrogels could have confined and protected those chemical processes until the membrane that surrounds living cells developed.

Read here from Science Daily.

The trouble is that reports like this are becoming all too common. I don’t think a week goes by that there’s not a new report of interesting compounds arising in the deep sea, in hydrothermal vents, in ice, on volcanoes, under lightning strikes, in tidal pools, on comets, on Mars…

But if ostensibly life-giving compounds can spring up practically anywhere, that leaves us precisely nowhere on the question of where it actually did so.

Triboluminescence in Afghanistan

Credit: M. Yon

My father was an Army pilot, and flew Chinook helicopters, the helicopter in this picture. The story, from NPR‘s Robert Krulwich Wonders describes lights that appear on certain occasions when Chinooks fly through the skies of Afghanistan:

“This isn’t a painting. It’s not from a movie. It’s not a strange astronomical event. This is real — what you can see when certain helicopters in Afghanistan touch down on sandy ground, raising dust, causing mysterious arcs of light to loop and dance through the air.”

The effect seems to be a case of triboluminescence: the light produced when the chemical bonds of certain substances are violently shorn under special conditions. Photographer Michael Yon, who captured the images, has dubbed the phenomenon the “The Kopp-Etchells Effect” after Cpl. Benjamin Kopp and Cpl. Joseph Etchells, American and British soldiers, respectively, who lost their lives serving in Afghanistan.

Read more here.


Image: Michael Yon

Monday Links

Pitch drop (U. of Queensland)


Gene therapy cures diabetes in early dog-based trial;

and Francis Phillips argues that virtuous atheism is not enough;

and the University of Queensland is still performing the world’s slowest experiment.



Links: NewScientist, Catholic Herald, and University of Queensland
Image: University of Queensland

Element 113 Discovered?

Nature reports:

“After nine years of painstaking experiment, researchers in Japan reported yesterday1 that they have created a third atom of the element 113. That success, according to experts in the field, could see the element officially added to the periodic table. It would be the first artificial element to be discovered in East Asia, potentially giving the Japanese team the right to name it.

But that privilege is not assured. US and Russian researchers have also been hard at work on element 113, and say that they have created 56 atoms of it since 2003.

None of these sightings has been confirmed by the independent committee of experts appointed to rule on such matters. That shows how hard it is to prove the creation of new superheavy elements, although it also highlights the bureaucratic nature of the process set up to approve findings.”

Read the story here from Nature.


Image: public domain

Amino Acid Imbalance in Tagish Lake Meteorite

Amino acids, among other uses, are the building blocks of proteins, and form one of the basic classes of important biological compounds. Amino acids can be constructed in two forms, left-handed and right-handed. Life uses only left-handed amino acids, and one question biologists have asked is why life uses left-handed rather than right-handed amino acids.

Researchers examining the Tagish Lake meteorite that fell over Canada in 2000 have found that the meteorite contains four times as much of the left-handed amino acid aspartic acid than it does of the right-handed version, while it only has a slight excess of the left-handed form of the amino acid alanine. The researchers note that if the amino acids in the meteorite were created by Earth-based organisms, there should be an overwhelming dominance of left-handed forms in all types amino acids. The difference between the two, they say, is a sign that the amino acids in the meteorite originated not in terrestrial biology, but in inorganic chemical processes in space. They confirmed this by analyzing the carbon isotopes in the amino acids, which also match the isotope distribution expected in a a space-based rather than a terrestrial chemical process.

The team concludes that this analysis provides evidence that space-based chemical processes can lead to a predominance of left-handed over right-handed forms of some amino acids in meteoroids. Previous studies have shown that effects such as polarized light can influence chemical reactions in such a way as to produce more of the left-handed than right-handed forms. The team also notes that some crystallization processes that begin with a small imbalance can, by serving as the template for further chemical production, amplify small imbalances into large ones—they suggest this explains why the imbalance in aspartic acid is greater than that in alanine in the Tagish Lake meteorite.

If early life on Earth made use of organic molecules delivered to the Earth from meteorites, the discovery that chemical processes in space generate predominantly left-handed forms of amino acids helps explain how it is that life  on Earth todayuses left-handed amino acids exclusively.


Image: NASA

Single Atom’s Shadow Imaged

Physicists at Griffith University in Australia have captured the image of the shadow of a single atom in visible light for the first time. Capturing the image requires using the use of a super-high resolution microscope which can gather the light for making the image. The single atom, of the element ytterbium, was suspended in place within a vacuum chamber by electrical forces. Professor Dave Kielpinski of Griffith University, a co-author of the paper, says that with this achievement, “We have reached the extreme limit of microscopy; you cannot see anything smaller than an atom using visible light.” The experiment is published in Nature Communications.

(Griffith University)
Image: Griffith University

Black Holes and The Missing Lithium

Sky & Telescope‘s Camille Carlisle reports on the mystery of the “missing lithium.” Models of nucleosynthesis predict higher levels of the isotope lithium-7 than are currently observed in the universe. Astronomers and astrophysicists are still unsure why. Now a new study suggests that taking black holes into account might just make the problem worse. Read here.

Two New Elements Named

The International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry (IUPAC) has announced the official names of the two newest elements, Flerovium (Fl) and Livermorium (Lv). These two newest elements occupy positions 114 and 116 on the periodic table, at the heavy end of the elements. Livermorium was created by scientists smashing heavy calcium atoms into curium atoms, but the unstable Livermorium almost instantly decayed into Flerovium. The first, Livermorium, is named in honor of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory at Berkeley, California, the site of many cutting-edge chemical and physical discoveries, and Flerovium honors the Russian Flerov Laboratory of Nuclear Reactions, after chemist Georgiy N. Flerov. (H/T Wired Science)

Three New Elements Named

The IUPAC has announced the official names of the newest synthesized elements, number 110, 111, and 112. The new substances have been named Darmstadtium, Roentgenium, and Copernicium, respectively. More here from the New York Times.

Giant Crystals Grow Slowly

I’ve posted before about the incredible giant crystal caverns of Mexico. New studies have revealed information about the growth of the crystals. Science reports:

“First discovered about a decade ago, the largest known cave crystals—single hunks of gypsum as much as 11 meters long, 1 meter thick, and weighing 55 tons—could have taken up to 1 million years to grow, a new study suggests.”

Read here.