Meteorite-catalyzed syntheses of nucleosides and of other prebiotic compounds from formamide under proton irradiation

Raffaele Saladino, Eleonora Carota, Giorgia Botta, Mikhail Kapralov, Gennady N. Timoshenko, Alexei Y. Rozanov, Eugene Krasavin, and Ernesto Di Mauro

PNAS 2015 ; published ahead of print April 13, 2015, doi:10.1073/pnas.1422225112


Supporting information (PDF)

Modern research on the origin of life started with Urey–Miller’s 1953 report on the spontaneous formation of amino acids upon application of electric discharge on a model of the pristine Earth atmosphere. Formamide provides a chemically sound starting material for the syntheses of prebiotic compounds; its role in prebiotics is becoming recognized. Kiloparsecs-wide clouds of formamide were observed in the interstellar space. The energy sources for the syntheses explored so far were largely thermal, and the catalysts used were mostly terrestrial. In the presence of meteorites and with high-energy protons, we observe the production of unprecedented panels of nucleobases, sugars, and, most notably, nucleosides. Carboxylic acids and amino acids complete the recipe. These findings extend prebiotic plausible scenarios well beyond our planet.
Liquid formamide has been irradiated by high-energy proton beams in the presence of powdered meteorites, and the products of the catalyzed resulting syntheses were analyzed by mass spectrometry. Relative to the controls (no radiation, or no formamide, or no catalyst), an extremely rich, variegate, and prebiotically relevant panel of compounds was observed. The meteorites tested were representative of the four major classes: iron, stony iron, chondrites, and achondrites. The products obtained were amino acids, carboxylic acids, nucleobases, sugars, and, most notably, four nucleosides: cytidine, uridine, adenosine, and thymidine. In accordance with theoretical studies, the detection of HCN oligomers suggests the occurrence of mechanisms based on the generation of radical cyanide species (CN·) for the synthesis of nucleobases. Given that many of the compounds obtained are key components of extant organisms, these observations contribute to outline plausible exogenous high-energy–based prebiotic scenarios and their possible boundary conditions, as discussed.