Sugars in space: NASA finds clue to life's origins in meteorites

NASA has announced a new major discovery in the mission to find life beyond our planet: sugars. Specifically, the space agency says that the sugars essential to life have been found in meteorites; these compounds join others that are considered 'biologically important' to the formation of life. The discovery involves two different meteorites.

There's the idea that meteorites carrying ingredients necessary for life may have crashed into Earth during its distant past, supplying compounds that eventually helped lead to the formation of life on our planet. This latest discovery points toward that, revealing the presence of xylose, ribose, and arabinose, all of them bio-essential sugars.

The compounds were found in Murchison (type CM2) and NWA 801 (type CR2), two meteorites described as 'rich in carbon.' Of note, NASA points out that ribose is a key component in RNA, the 'messenger molecule' contributing to the building of specific proteins. The sugars joined nucleobases and amino acids, also ingredients of life, previously found on meteorites.

The lead author behind the newly published study detailing this finding, Yoshihiro Furukawa, explains that 'sugars have been a missing piece among the major building blocks of life' when it comes to meteorites. 'The research provides the first direct evidence of ribose in space and the delivery of the sugar to Earth.'

The findings will help shape the analysis of samples collected from asteroids like Bennu and Ryugu, two missions that include Japan's Hayabusa2 and NASA's OSIRIS-REx spacecraft. The researchers say that it is unlikely contamination produced the sugars found in the meteorites; additional analyses of other meteorites are planned for the future.