A team of scientists believes they have discovered the first extraterrestrial protein known to humanity. Using a new analysis technique, the researchers claim to have found the out-of-this-world discovery inside a meteorite that fell to Earth some 30 years ago.
If the results can be replicated and verified, it will be the first protein ever to have been identified that did not originate on Earth. The protein molecule named HEMOLITHIN was detected inside two meteorites.
According to the findings of the study, HEMOLITHIN could give scientists a clue to study how life on Earth originated. The study is reportedly accepted for publication in the Proceedings of National Academy of Sciences.
The protein was discovered inside meteorite samples named ALLENDE and the ACFER 086 found in Mexico, 1969 and Algeria in 1990 respectively. Meteorites are space rocks which date back to billions of years, which often fall on Earth.
Scientists study them mainly to understand the evolution of the solar system. Proteins are organic molecules found among living organisms on Earth and are regarded as the building blocks of the body tissues that help in growth.
For this study, researchers analysed the meteorites using a mass spectrometer and the results indicated that the protein formed in an interstellar molecular cloud in the infant years of the universe.
“Proteins were discovered in ALLENDE and ACFER 086 with extra-terrestrial isotope enhancement that confirmed these unexpected molecules were not artefacts due to terrestrial contamination,” stated the paper.
Scientists have hypothesized that the elements of life may have come on earth through meteorites and asteroids from outer space for decades. Moreover, the analyses of the protein HEMOLITHIN, showcased it may also possess the property of splitting water into its compound – hydrogen and oxygen.
The two compounds play an important role in supporting life on Earth. Therefore, this proves that it may have helped to shape life on Earth.
According to the study, the protein molecule formed using individual units of glycine present in the dust surface. Further, the warm molecular clouds could have created the ideal situation for the molecules to form a polymer chain. The protein is found containing elements—Iron and Lithium.
“The molecule is tipped by an iron-oxygen-iron grouping that in other terrestrial contexts has been proposed to be capable of absorbing photons and splitting water into hydroxyl and hydrogen moieties,” said the paper.
The research is a collaborative work of three institutes- Harvard University, PLEX Corporation, and Bruker Scientific. Earlier, in 2012, NASA discovered amino acids in carbonaceous meteorites and another one was discovered in 2017 in Murchison meteorite, but never before a complete protein has been found.
Though this isn’t conclusive proof of alien life, it is yet another discovery of one of life’s building blocks found on a piece of rock that came hurtling through space before it collided with our planet.
This discovery will further help astronomers and scientists to understand the past universe and evolution of life on Earth.