Washington, Oct 6 : A meteorite, which crashed into Australia 40 years ago, is telling researchers new things about how life may have started on Earth, and how that almost universal protein left-handedness came to be.
For more than 150 years, scientists have known that the most basic building blocks of life - chains of amino acid molecules and the proteins they form - almost always have the unusual characteristic of being overwhelmingly "left-handed."
The molecules, of course, have no hands, but they are almost all asymmetrical in a way that parallels left-handedness.
This observation, first made in the 1800s by French chemist Louis Pasteur, is taught to introductory organic chemistry students - until recently with the caveat that nobody knew how this came to be.
But research into the question has picked up in recent years, focusing on a 200-pound chunk of rock found 40 years ago in Murchison, Australia.
A meteorite that broke off an asteroid long ago, it brought to Earth a rich collection of carbon-based material from far away in the solar system.
According to a report in Washington Post, while the Murchison meteorite does not have any once-living material, it is telling researchers new things about how life may have started on Earth, and how that almost universal protein left-handedness came to be.
The answer they believe they have found is that 3 billion to 4 billion years ago, before life on Earth began, similar meteorites crashed regularly into the planet - delivering the amino acids that would later be incorporated into all living things.
The meteorites did this by providing building blocks with a slight preponderance of that handedness (known scientifically as chirality) that makes life possible.
"We know that all amino acids start mirror-image the same, but in living things they have this handedness," said Ronald Breslow, a Columbia University researcher.
"This change doesn't happen spontaneously, and we've never been able to reproduce it in the laboratory under conditions similar to early Earth," he added.
"The answer to where it comes from looks increasingly like meteorites, from extraterrestrial bodies falling to Earth. It's a complex story, but we're beginning to understand it better," he further added.
Breslow and his colleagues made significant progress recently when they proved that the Murchison amino acids could transfer their left-handedness to otherwise symmetrical amino acids.
They then found that small degrees of chirality could be dramatically amplified in a water solution under conditions similar to the early Earth.
Their conclusion was that even the relatively limited number of additional left-handed amino acids in the meteorites could, under the right conditions, lead to a world where almost all amino acids and proteins end up left-handed.