Doe Science news source
The DOE Science News Source is a Newswise initiative to promote research news from the Office of Science of the DOE to the public and news media.
  • 2018-01-09 17:05:13
  • Article ID: 687721

Ingredients for Life Revealed in Meteorites That Fell to Earth

Study, based in part at Berkeley Lab, also suggests dwarf planet in asteroid belt may be a source of rich organic matter

  • Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

    Artist’s rendering of asteroids and space dust.

  • Credit: Queenie Chan/The Open University, U.K.

    A blue crystal recovered from a meteorite that fell near Morocco in 1998. The scale bar represents 200 microns (millionths of a meter).

  • Credit: NASA

    Ceres, a dwarf planet in the asteroid belt pictured here in this NASA-produced false-color image, may be the source of organic matter found on two meteorites that crashed to Earth in 1998.

  • Credit: Courtesy of Queenie Chan/The Open University, U.K.

    Queenie Chan, a scientist at The Open University in the U.K., studies meteorite sample in a NASA clean room.

Two wayward space rocks, which separately crashed to Earth in 1998 after circulating in our solar system’s asteroid belt for billions of years, share something else in common: the ingredients for life. They are the first meteorites found to contain both liquid water and a mix of complex organic compounds such as hydrocarbons and amino acids.

A detailed study of the chemical makeup within tiny blue and purple salt crystals sampled from these meteorites, which included results from X-ray experiments at the Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab), also found evidence for the pair’s past intermingling and likely parents. These include Ceres, a dwarf planet that is the largest object in the asteroid belt, and the asteroid Hebe, a major source of meteorites that fall on Earth.

The study, published Jan. 10 in the journal Science Advances, provides the first comprehensive chemical exploration of organic matter and liquid water in salt crystals found in Earth-impacting meteorites. The study treads new ground in the narrative of our solar system’s early history and asteroid geology while surfacing exciting possibilities for the existence of life elsewhere in Earth’s neighborhood.

“It’s like a fly in amber,” said David Kilcoyne, a scientist at Berkeley Lab’s Advanced Light Source (ALS), which provided X-rays that were used to scan the samples’ organic chemical components, including carbon, oxygen, and nitrogen. Kilcoyne was part of the international research team that prepared the study.

While the rich deposits of organic remnants recovered from the meteorites don’t provide any proof of life outside of Earth, Kilcoyne said the meteorites’ encapsulation of rich chemistry is analogous to the preservation of prehistoric insects in solidified sap droplets. 

Queenie Chan, a planetary scientist and postdoctoral research associate at The Open University in the U.K. who was the study’s lead author, said, “This is really the first time we have found abundant organic matter also associated with liquid water that is really crucial to the origin of life and the origin of complex organic compounds in space.”

She added, “We’re looking at the organic ingredients that can lead to the origin of life,” including the amino acids needed to form proteins. 

If life did exist in some form in the early solar system, the study notes that these salt crystal-containing meteorites raise the “possibility of trapping life and/or biomolecules” within their salt crystals. The crystals carried microscopic traces of water that is believed to date back to the infancy of our solar system – about 4.5 billion years ago.

Chan said the similarity of the crystals found in the meteorites – one of which smashed into the ground near a children’s basketball game in Texas in March 1998 and the other which hit near Morocco in August 1998 – suggest that their asteroid hosts may have crossed paths and mixed materials.

There are also structural clues of an impact – perhaps by a small asteroid fragment impacting a larger asteroid, Chan said.

This opens up many possibilities for how organic matter may be passed from one host to another in space, and scientists may need to rethink the processes that led to the complex suite of organic compounds on these meteorites. 

“Things are not as simple as we thought they were,” Chan said.

There are also clues, based on the organic chemistry and space observations, that the crystals may have originally been seeded by ice- or water-spewing volcanic activity on Ceres, she said.

“Everything leads to the conclusion that the origin of life is really possible elsewhere,” Chan said. “There is a great range of organic compounds within these meteorites, including a very primitive type of organics that likely represent the early solar system’s organic composition.”

Chan said the two meteorites that yielded the 2-millimeter-sized salt crystals were carefully preserved at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Texas, and the tiny crystals containing organic solids and water traces measure just a fraction of the width of a human hair. Chan meticulously collected these crystals in a dust-controlled room, splitting off tiny sample fragments with metal instruments resembling dental picks.

“What makes our analysis so special is that we combined a lot of different state-of-the-art techniques to comprehensively study the organic components of these tiny salt crystals,” Chan said.

Yoko Kebukawa, an associate professor of engineering at Yokohama National University in Japan, carried out experiments for the study at Berkeley Lab’s ALS in May 2016 with Aiko Nakato, a postdoctoral researcher at Kyoto University in Japan. Kilcoyne helped to train the researchers to use the ALS X-ray beamline and microscope.

The beamline equipped with this X-ray microscope (a scanning transmission X-ray microscope, or STXM) is used in combination with a technique known as XANES (X-ray absorption near edge structure spectroscopy) to measure the presence of specific elements with a precision of tens of nanometers (tens of billionths of a meter).

“We revealed that the organic matter was somewhat similar to that found in primitive meteorites, but contained more oxygen-bearing chemistry,” Kebukawa said. “Combined with other evidence, the results support the idea that the organic matter originated from a water-rich, or previously water-rich parent body – an ocean world in the early solar system, possibly Ceres.”

Kebukawa also used the same STXM technique to study samples at the Photon Factory, a research site in Japan. And the research team enlisted a variety of other chemical experimental techniques to explore the samples’ makeup in different ways and at different scales.

Chan noted that there are some other well-preserved crystals from the meteorites that haven’t yet been studied, and there are plans for follow-up studies to identify if any of those crystals may also contain water and complex organic molecules.

Kebukawa said she looks forward to continuing studies of these samples at the ALS and other sites: “We may find more variations in organic chemistry.”

The Advanced Light Source is a DOE Office of Science User Facility.

Scientists at NASA Johnson Space Center, Kochi Institute for Core Sample Research in Japan, Carnegie Institution of Washington, Hiroshima University, The University of Tokyo, the High-Energy Accelerator Research Organization (KEK) in Japan, and The Graduate University for Advanced Studies (SOKENDAI) in Japan also participated in the study. The work was supported by the U.S. DOE Office of Science, the Universities Space Research Association, NASA, the National Institutes of Natural Sciences in Japan, Japan Society for the Promotion of Science, and The Mitsubishi Foundation.


Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory addresses the world’s most urgent scientific challenges by advancing sustainable energy, protecting human health, creating new materials, and revealing the origin and fate of the universe. Founded in 1931, Berkeley Lab’s scientific expertise has been recognized with 13 Nobel Prizes. The University of California manages Berkeley Lab for the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science. For more, visit

DOE’s Office of Science is the single largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States, and is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. For more information, please visit

  • Filters

  • × Clear Filters

Rutgers Scientists Discover 'Legos of Life'

Rutgers scientists have found the "Legos of life" - four core chemical structures that can be stacked together to build the myriad proteins inside every organism - after smashing and dissecting nearly 10,000 proteins to understand their component parts. The four building blocks make energy available for humans and all other living organisms, according to a study published online today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Small Hydroelectric Dams Increase Globally with Little Research, Regulations

University of Washington researchers have published the first major assessment of small hydropower dams around the world -- including their potential for growth -- and highlight the incredibly variability in how dams of varying sizes are categorized, regulated and studied.

Researchers Reveal How Microbes Cope in Phosphorus-Deficient Tropical Soil

A team led by the Department of Energy's Oak Ridge National Laboratory has uncovered how certain soil microbes cope in a phosphorus-poor environment to survive in a tropical ecosystem. Their novel approach could be applied in other ecosystems to study various nutrient limitations and inform agriculture and terrestrial biosphere modeling.

Scientists Discover Material Ideal for Smart Photovoltaic Windows

Researchers at Berkeley Lab discovered that a form of perovskite, one of the hottest materials in solar research due to its high conversion efficiency, works surprisingly well as a stable and photoactive semiconductor material that can be reversibly switched between a transparent state and a non-transparent state, without degrading its electronic properties.

Biofuels Feedstock Study Supports Billion-Ton Estimate

Can farmers produce at least 1 billion tons of biomass per year that can be used as biofuels feedstock? The answer is yes.

On the Rebound

New research from the U.S. Department of Energy's Argonne National Laboratory and Stanford University has found that palladium nanoparticles can repair atomic dislocations in their crystal structure, potentially leading to other advances in material science.

Coupling Experiments to Theory to Build a Better Battery

A Berkeley Lab-led team of researchers has reported that a new lithium-sulfur battery component allows a doubling in capacity compared to a conventional lithium-sulfur battery, even after more than 100 charge cycles.

DRIFTing to Fast, Precise Data

Non-destructive technique identifies key variations in Alaskan soils, quickly providing insights into carbon levels.

A Shortcut to Modeling Sickle Cell Disease

Using Oak Ridge National Laboratory's Titan supercomputer, a team led by Brown University's George Karniadakis devised a multiscale model of sickle cell disease that captures what happens inside a red blood cell affected by the disease.

Remotely Predicting Leaf Age in Tropical Forests

New approach offers data across species, sites, and canopies, providing insights into carbon uptake by forests.

  • Filters

  • × Clear Filters

Theoretical Physicist Elena Belova Named to Editorial Board of Physics of Plasmas

Theoretical physicist Elena Belova named to editorial board of Physics of Plasmas

Superconducting X-Ray Laser Takes Shape in Silicon Valley

An area known for high-tech gadgets and innovation will soon be home to an advanced superconducting X-ray laser that stretches 3 miles in length, built by a collaboration of national laboratories. On January 19, the first section of the machine's new accelerator arrived by truck at SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory in Menlo Park after a cross-country journey that began in Batavia, Illinois, at Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory.

Kelsey Stoerzinger Earns Young Investigator Lectureship

Kelsey Stoerzinger, Pauling Fellow at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, is one of the 2018 Caltech Young Investigator Lecturers in Engineering and Applied Physics.

North Dakota State University Joins Two National Distributed Computing Groups

The NDSU Center for Computationally Assisted Science and Technology (CCAST) joins OSG (Open Science Grid) and XSEDE (Extreme Science and Engineering Discovery Environment).

DOE Announces Funding for New HPC4Manufacturing Industry Projects

The Department of Energy's Advanced Manufacturing Office (AMO) today announced the funding of $1.87 million for seven new industry projects under an ongoing initiative designed to utilize DOE's high-performance computing (HPC) resources and expertise to advance U.S. manufacturing and clean energy technologies.

DOE Announces First Awardees for New HPC4Materials for Severe Environments Program

The Department of Energy's Office of Fossil Energy (FE) today announced the funding of $450,000 for the first two private-public partnerships under a brand-new initiative aimed at discovering, designing and scaling up production of novel materials for severe environments.

Two Argonne Scientists Recognized for a Decade of Breakthroughs

Two scientists with the U.S. Department of Energy's (DOE) Argonne National Laboratory have been named to the Web of Science's Highly Cited List of 2017, ranking in the top 1 percent of their peers by citations and subject area. Materials Scientist Khalil Amine and Energy and Environmental Policy Scientist David Streets say they are thrilled to see their work -- and the laboratory -- recognized in such a way.

Argonne Welcomes Department of Energy Secretary Perry

U.S. Department of Energy Secretary Rick Perry visited Argonne National Laboratory yesterday, getting a first-hand view of the multifaceted and interdisciplinary research program laboratory of the Department.

Argonne names John Quintana Deputy Laboratory Director for Operations and COO

John Quintana has been named Deputy Laboratory Director for Operations and Chief Operations Officer (COO) of the U.S. Department of Energy's (DOE) Argonne National Laboratory.

Developing Next-Generation Sensing Technologies

Recently, the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) announced $20 million in funding for 15 projects that will develop a new class of sensor systems to enable significant energy savings via reduced demand for heating and cooling in residential and commercial buildings.

  • Filters

  • × Clear Filters

Exploring Past, Present, and Future Water Availability Regionally, Globally

New open-source software simulates river and runoff resources.

Arctic Photosynthetic Capacity and Carbon Dioxide Assimilation Underestimated by Terrestrial Biosphere Models

New measurements offer data vital to projecting plant response to environmental changes.

DRIFTing to Fast, Precise Data

Non-destructive technique identifies key variations in Alaskan soils, quickly providing insights into carbon levels.

Superconducting Tokamaks Are Standing Tall

Plasma physicists significantly improve the vertical stability of a Korean fusion device.

Graphene Flexes Its Muscle

Crumpling reduces rigidity in an otherwise stiff material, making it less prone to catastrophic failure.

Remotely Predicting Leaf Age in Tropical Forests

New approach offers data across species, sites, and canopies, providing insights into carbon uptake by forests.

What's the Noise Eating Quantum Bits?

The magnetic noise caused by adsorbed oxygen molecules is "eating at" the phase stability of quantum bits, mitigating the noise is vital for future quantum computers.

Rewritable Wires Could Mean No More Obsolete Circuitry

An electric field switches the conductivity on and off in atomic-scale channels, which could allow for upgrades at will.

Filtering Water Better than Nature

Water passes through human-made straws faster than the "gold standard" protein, allowing us to filter seawater.

Machine Learning Provides a Bridge to the Texture of the Quantum World

Machine learning and neural networks are the foundation of artificial intelligence and image recognition, but now they offer a bridge to see and recognize exotic insulating phases in quantum materials.


Wednesday January 17, 2018, 12:05 PM

Photographer Adam Nadel Selected as Fermilab's New Artist-in-Residence for 2018

Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory (Fermilab)

Wednesday January 17, 2018, 12:05 PM

Fermilab Computing Partners with Argonne, Local Schools for Hour of Code

Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory (Fermilab)

Wednesday December 20, 2017, 01:05 PM

Q&A: Sam Webb Teaches X-Ray Science from a Remote Classroom

SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory

Monday December 18, 2017, 01:05 PM

The Future of Today's Electric Power Systems

Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI)

Monday December 18, 2017, 12:05 PM

Supporting the Development of Offshore Wind Power Plants

Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI)

Tuesday October 03, 2017, 01:05 PM

Stairway to Science

Argonne National Laboratory

Thursday September 28, 2017, 12:05 PM

After-School Energy Rush

Argonne National Laboratory

Thursday September 28, 2017, 10:05 AM

Bringing Diversity Into Computational Science Through Student Outreach

Brookhaven National Laboratory

Thursday September 21, 2017, 03:05 PM

From Science to Finance: SLAC Summer Interns Forge New Paths in STEM

SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory

Thursday September 07, 2017, 02:05 PM

Students Discuss 'Cosmic Opportunities' at 45th Annual SLAC Summer Institute

SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory

Thursday August 31, 2017, 05:05 PM

Binghamton University Opens $70 Million Smart Energy Building

Binghamton University, State University of New York

Wednesday August 23, 2017, 05:05 PM

Widening Horizons for High Schoolers with Code

Argonne National Laboratory

Saturday May 20, 2017, 12:05 PM

Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute Graduates Urged to Embrace Change at 211th Commencement

Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI)

Monday May 15, 2017, 01:05 PM

ORNL, University of Tennessee Launch New Doctoral Program in Data Science

Oak Ridge National Laboratory

Friday April 07, 2017, 11:05 AM

Champions in Science: Profile of Jonathan Kirzner

Department of Energy, Office of Science

Wednesday April 05, 2017, 12:05 PM

High-Schooler Solves College-Level Security Puzzle From Argonne, Sparks Interest in Career

Argonne National Laboratory

Tuesday March 28, 2017, 12:05 PM

Champions in Science: Profile of Jenica Jacobi

Department of Energy, Office of Science

Friday March 24, 2017, 10:40 AM

Great Neck South High School Wins Regional Science Bowl at Brookhaven Lab

Brookhaven National Laboratory

Wednesday February 15, 2017, 04:05 PM

Middle Schoolers Test Their Knowledge at Science Bowl Competition

Argonne National Laboratory

Friday January 27, 2017, 04:00 PM

Haslam Visits ORNL to Highlight State's Role in Discovering Tennessine

Oak Ridge National Laboratory

Tuesday November 08, 2016, 12:05 PM

Internship Program Helps Foster Development of Future Nuclear Scientists

Oak Ridge National Laboratory

Friday May 13, 2016, 04:05 PM

More Than 12,000 Explore Jefferson Lab During April 30 Open House

Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility

Monday April 25, 2016, 05:05 PM

Giving Back to National Science Bowl

Ames Laboratory

Friday March 25, 2016, 12:05 PM

NMSU Undergrad Tackles 3D Particle Scattering Animations After Receiving JSA Research Assistantship

Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility

Tuesday February 02, 2016, 10:05 AM

Shannon Greco: A Self-Described "STEM Education Zealot"

Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory

Monday November 16, 2015, 04:05 PM

Rare Earths for Life: An 85th Birthday Visit with Mr. Rare Earth

Ames Laboratory

Tuesday October 20, 2015, 01:05 PM

Meet Robert Palomino: 'Give Everything a Shot!'

Brookhaven National Laboratory

Tuesday April 22, 2014, 11:30 AM

University of Utah Makes Solar Accessible

University of Utah

Wednesday March 06, 2013, 03:40 PM

Student Innovator at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute Seeks Brighter, Smarter, and More Efficient LEDs

Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI)

Friday November 16, 2012, 10:00 AM

Texas Tech Energy Commerce Students, Community Light up Tent City

Texas Tech University

Wednesday November 23, 2011, 10:45 AM

Don't Get 'Frosted' Over Heating Your Home This Winter

Temple University

Wednesday July 06, 2011, 06:00 PM

New Research Center To Tackle Critical Challenges Related to Aircraft Design, Wind Energy, Smart Buildings

Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI)

Friday April 22, 2011, 09:00 AM

First Polymer Solar-Thermal Device Heats Home, Saves Money

Wake Forest University

Friday April 15, 2011, 12:25 PM

Like Superman, American University Will Get Its Energy from the Sun

American University

Thursday February 10, 2011, 05:00 PM

ARRA Grant to Help Fund Seminary Building Green Roof

University of Chicago

Tuesday December 07, 2010, 05:00 PM

UC San Diego Installing 2.8 Megawatt Fuel Cell to Anchor Energy Innovation Park

University of California San Diego

Monday November 01, 2010, 12:50 PM

Rensselaer Smart Lighting Engineering Research Center Announces First Deployment of New Technology on Campus

Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI)

Friday September 10, 2010, 12:40 PM

Ithaca College Will Host Regional Clean Energy Summit

Ithaca College

Tuesday July 27, 2010, 10:30 AM

Texas Governor Announces $8.4 Million Award to Create Renewable Energy Institute

Texas Tech University

Friday May 07, 2010, 04:20 PM

Creighton University to Offer New Alternative Energy Program

Creighton University

Wednesday May 05, 2010, 09:30 AM

National Engineering Program Seeks Subject Matter Experts in Energy

JETS Junior Engineering Technical Society

Wednesday April 21, 2010, 12:30 PM

Students Using Solar Power To Create Sustainable Solutions for Haiti, Peru

Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI)

Wednesday March 03, 2010, 07:00 PM

Helping Hydrogen: Student Inventor Tackles Challenge of Hydrogen Storage

Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI)

Thursday February 04, 2010, 02:00 PM

Turning Exercise into Electricity

Furman University

Thursday November 12, 2009, 12:45 PM

Campus Leaders Showing the Way to a Sustainable, Clean Energy Future

National Wildlife Federation (NWF)

Tuesday November 03, 2009, 04:20 PM

Furman University Receives $2.5 Million DOE Grant for Geothermal Project

Furman University

Thursday September 17, 2009, 02:45 PM

Could Sorghum Become a Significant Alternative Fuel Source?

Salisbury University

Wednesday September 16, 2009, 11:15 AM

Students Navigating the Hudson River With Hydrogen Fuel Cells

Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI)

Showing results

0-4 Of 2215