How universal are life’s building blocks?

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Dr Annemieke Petrignani. Image: HIMS.
Dr Annemieke Petrignani. Image: HIMS.

Astrochemist and MacGillavry Fellow Dr Annemieke Petrignani of the Van ’t Hoff Institute for Molecular Sciences has been awarded funding of € 280,000 through the Planetary and Exoplanetary Science programme (PEPSci) of NWO. The focus of this research, carried out in cooperation with Dr Helen King from Utrecht University, will be on polymerization processes as a selection mechanism between potential terrestrial and extra-terrestrial building blocks of life.

Organic molecules have been detected on rocky bodies, meteorites, and in the interstellar medium. Among them amino acids, important molecular building blocks of life on earth. Just like amino acids, earth-like rocky planets are also abundant. An interesting question then is whether these planets spawn and harbour life in the same way earth does. And if not, what are the factors that are of relevance to the possible origin of life on these planets?

On Earth, polymerization of amino acids leads to the formation of peptides, which eventually form the proteins that are omnipresent in earth’s lifeforms. In her research proposal now awarded with an NWO PEPSci grant, Dr Annemieke Petrignani focuses on the role of the environment on the polymerization of small molecular building blocks - in-situ versus exogenous-delivered - to larger biomolecules. The central research question is to what extent the origin of prebiotic molecules plays a role in which monomers lead to biopolymers. Do prebiotic polymerisation processes select certain monomers over others and how is this influenced by planetary conditions? The answers to this question will provide insight in prebiotic chemistry routes on rocky exoplanets and thus provide input for the analysis of (future) planetary missions.

Prebiotic polymerisation routes

Together with mineralogist Dr Helen King from the Department of Earth Sciences at Utrecht University, Petrignani will examine prebiotic polymerisation routes at the interface of atmosphere and mineral surfaces with dry/wet cycling in conditions relevant for Early-Earth, Mars and Titan. An important novelty is a focus on the molecular selectivity that polymerization may introduce. Mixtures of natural and extraterrestrial building blocks will be studied to directly compare the polymerization potential of the different types of monomers present. Key planetary environmental parameters that will be studied are the structural properties of minerals and the oxidation effect of the atmosphere.

The duration of the project is four years and involves the appointment of a PhD researcher. Exchange of information with planetary missions will take place in collaboration with, amongst others, ESA and TU Delft.

See also

Vidi grants for Moniek Tromp and Annemieke Petrignani
MacGillavry position for astrochemist Annemieke Petrignani