Published: 27 November 2013

University research points to beginnings of life on earth

Advanced work in Surrey’s Ion Beam Centre proves simple life forms could have arrived on earth in a meteorite strike.

The discovery that remnants of 800,000-year-old swamp land have been preserved inside glass created in a meteorite strike proves – for the first time – that traces of life can survive a meteor impact.  

Surrey academics Dr Chris Jeynes of the Ion Beam Centre, Dr Melanie Bailey of the Department of Chemistry, and Dr Vladimir Stolojan of the Advanced Technology Institute (ATI) are part of a team of scientists behind this ground-breaking research, which was recently published in highly respected journal ‘Nature Geoscience’. It has since been featured in the ‘New Scientist’ among other media.

Providing a vital piece of evidence in the greatest scientific puzzle of all, the research adds weight to the idea of ‘panspermia’: the argument that life on our planet was seeded by material falling from space.  Meteors can travel vast distances, and scientists have long suspected that this may have enabled organic matter to travel from space to earth. However until now, there has been no definitive proof that organic materials could survive the heat and pressure of such an impact.

The startling discovery was found when Surrey’s Ion Beam Centre was asked to analyse samples of impact glasses from an area near Mount Darwin in Tasmania, which was struck by a meteorite around 800,000 years ago. The samples had baffled Dr Kieran Howard, the mineralogist who discovered them, because – despite supposedly being amorphous – they contained tiny crystals. Dr Howard approached the Ion Beam Centre and, using an advanced Ion Beam Analysis (IBA) technique known as “Total-IBA”, they found that inclusions preserved inside the glass were mainly carbon.

Dr Bailey explains: “Dr Howard asked me to look for platinum group elements and I had to report back that I couldn’t find any of these elements – the inclusion material was mainly carbon and oxygen – expecting him to be disappointed. By contrast, it created great excitement because he knew it challenged the theory of how organic materials acted under meteorite impact.”

The crystals (of rutile and quartz) found in these inclusions were then imaged directly by Dr Stolojan using high resolution transmission electron microscopy with electron energy loss spectrometry.

“Crucially, not only do the special conditions in these inclusions allow crystals to exist (an observation unprecedented for impact glasses), but we could demonstrate by gas chromatography that biomarkers representative of plant species in the target ecosystem are also preserved,” explains Dr Jeynes. “This is the first report demonstrating that organic materials can survive such high impact events, and proves that the organic molecules known to be present in meteors could contribute to the genesis of life on earth.

“I think this work is a vindication of the value of IBA as a powerful analytical tool able to elucidate the 3-D composition and structure of completely unknown samples,” says Dr Jeynes. 

Surrey’s “Total-IBA” technology is now being used for a number of different applications, including forensics, leading to breakthroughs in laboratories worldwide. Dr Bailey says: “We've been using ion beam analysis to improve the discrimination between different types of gunshot residue, which could help to rule out contamination of gunshot residue from sources other than the shooting incident in question. This is possible because IBA is much more sensitive than conventional methods to trace elements.”

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