Life and Chemistry Large Molecules

In 1984, a rock was found on the ice in the Allan Hills region of Antarctica. ALH 84001, as it came to be called, was a meteorite that came from Mars. We know this because the composition of the gases trapped within the rock was identical to the Martian atmosphere, which is quite different from Earth's atmosphere. Radioactive dating and mineral analyses determined that ALH 84001 was 4.5 billion years old and had been blasted off the Martian surface 16 million years ago, landing on Earth fairly recently, about 11,000 years ago.

Scientists found water trapped below the Martian meteorite's surface. This discovery was not surprising, considering that surface observations of Mars have indicated that liquid water may once have been abundant there (see Chapter 2). Because water is the sine qua non for life, scientists wondered whether the meteorite might contain other signs of life as well. Their analysis revealed two substances related to living systems. First, simple carbon-containing molecules called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons were present in small but unmistakable amounts; these substances are formed by decaying organisms, such as microbes. And second, crystals of magnetite, an iron oxide mineral made by many living things on Earth, were isolated from the interior of the rock.

ALH 84001 is not the only visitor from outer space that has been shown to contain the chemistry of life. Fragments of a meteorite that fell around the town of Murchi-son, Australia in 1969 were found to contain molecules that are unique to life, including purines and pyrimidines (the building blocks of DNA) and amino acids (which link together to form proteins). All of the amino acids showed a "handedness" that is unique to life.

These meteorites suggest that life is not found only on Earth, but they do not answer the question of how or where life arose from nonliving matter. We begin this chapter by presenting two hypotheses for the origin of life on Earth. After discussing these hypotheses, we take a detailed look at the four kinds of large molecules that characterize living organisms: proteins, carbohydrates, lipids (fats), and nucleic acids.

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