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Could Extraterrestrial Sugar Explain How Life Began on Earth?

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A composite image of meteors falling through Earth’s atmosphere during the 2015 Perseid meteor shower. (Credit: Belish/Shutterstock)

Extraterrestrial Sugar

Scientists have discovered derivatives of life’s building blocks in carbon-rich meteorite samples, a first. They also showed how biological compounds can form in interstellar space. These new findings support the theory that life on Earth originated with help from cosmic impacts.

Sugars and sugar derivatives are essential to life on Earth. But they, along with amino acids and other organic molecules, can be found in space as well, on asteroids and comets. Scientists have suggested that objects in space may have fallen to Earth and delivered the compounds that would spark biological processes on our planet.

Sugar and Ice

In this new study, scientists analyzed five residues from ice mixtures exposed to ultraviolet radiation in conditions simulating the interstellar medium in space. The goal was to see whether organic molecules found in life on Earth would form in a simulated space environment. In these residues, they found 2-deoxyribose, or the sugar component that makes up the “D” in DNA. They also found derivatives of 2-deoxyribose, similar compounds that have one atom or a group of atoms that are different.

“Astrochemistry ice photolysis experiments, such as those described in our paper, provide a convincing explanation on how those compounds may form in such astrophysical environments,” lead researcher Michel Nuevo of NASA Ames Research Center said about these experiments in an email.

There are many theories surrounding the origins of life on Earth. Scientists think that biological compounds like 2-deoxyribose may have played a role in the formation of Earth’s first organisms. Some have even suggested that these biological compounds formed in the abiotic environment of space, aboard objects like comets, asteroids, meteoroids, and interplanetary dust particles. Previous studies have shown how biological compounds might form in space, and they could have fallen to Earth early on in its history when bombardment by asteroids and comets was more common.

In short, this study demonstrated that biological compounds like 2-deoxyribose can form in a non-biological environment.

“Our paper, together with several other papers describing similar astrochemistry experiments published in the last 25 years or so, show that a very wide variety of compounds of biological interest can be formed under abiotic (i.e., non-biological) conditions in astrophysical environments,” lead researcher Michel Nuevo of NASA Ames Research Center in an email.

Still Searching for DNA

In addition to this analysis, the researchers were able to identify some of these deoxy sugar derivatives in carbonaceous, or carbon-rich, meteorite samples for the first time ever. This proved that these biological compounds can be produced in a space environment. However, while the team found 2-deoxyribose in the laboratory experiments, they were unable to find the DNA component in the meteorite samples analyzed.

According to Nuevo, while this work doesn’t solve the mystery of how life on Earth originated, it shows how it is quite likely that meteorites have deposited biological compounds on Earth throughout history.

“Since asteroids and comets routinely crash onto the surface of planets, including the Earth, in the form of meteorites, it is obvious that large amounts of organic compounds, including compounds of biological interest, are routinely dumped on our continents and in our oceans, the same way they are probably dumped onto other planets of the solar system,” he said. “This does not explain how life originated on our planet more than 4 billion years ago, as nobody knows how those organic compounds could combine into the even more complex structures required for life to get started. But it shows that sugar derivatives and other compounds of biological interest are present and are probably dumped onto planets everywhere in the galaxy.”

This work is published in the journal Nature Communications.

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Ecology

Today’s letters: ‘Visionary’ plans don’t always work in Ottawa

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The opinion piece written by Tobi Nussbaum, CEO of the NCC, declares that a “bold, visionary transit plan” would showcase the capital.

As a long-term resident of Ottawa, I’ve had it with visionary plans. In the 1950s, the streetcars serving Ottawa so well were sent to the scrapyards. In the early ’60s, Queensway construction bulldozed established neighbourhoods and ripped the city apart. Later in the decade, the downtown railway station, which could have formed the hub of a commuter network, was relocated to the suburbs. These actions, in the name of “progress,” were undertaken with the “vision” to make Ottawa a car-reliant city.

Now we have an LRT, built just in time for most people to realize that they do not have to go downtown as they can work from home.

Current thinking is pushing a new “link” between Ottawa and Gatineau, with yet more expensive and disruptive infrastructure projects being touted, including a tramway or another tunnel under the downtown core.

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Ecology

That was then: Biggest earthquake since 1653 rocked Ottawa in 1925

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A regular weekly look-back at some offbeat or interesting stories that have appeared in the Ottawa Citizen over its 175-year history. Today: The big one hits.

The Ottawa Senators were playing a Saturday night game against the Montreal Canadiens at the Auditorium, the score tied 0-0 halfway through the second period. Sens’ rookie Ed Gorman and the Habs’ Billy Boucher had just served penalties for a dustup when the building began to make “ominous creaking sounds.” A window crashed to the ground.

Nearby, at Lisgar Collegiate, all eyes were on teenager Roxie Carrier, in the role of Donna Cyrilla in the musical comedy El Bandido. She had the stage to herself and was singing “Sometime” when the building rocked, the spotlight went out, and someone in the audience yelled “Fire!”

At a home on Carey Avenue, one woman’s normally relaxed cat suddenly arched its back, rushed around the room two or three times, spitting angrily, and climbed up the front-window curtains.

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Ecology

Ottawa delays small nuclear reactor plan as critics decry push for new reactors

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TORONTO — Canadians will have to wait a little while longer to see the federal government’s plan for the development of small nuclear reactors, seen by proponents as critical to the country’s fight against global warming.

Speaking at the opening of a two-day virtual international conference on Wednesday, the parliamentary secretary to the minister of natural resources said the plan will lay out key actions regarding the reactors. Its launch, Paul Lefebvre said, would come in the next few weeks.

“We’re still putting the finishing touches on it,” Lefebvre said. “The action plan is too important to be rushed.”

Small modular reactors — SMRs — are smaller in size and energy output than traditional nuclear power units, and more flexible in their deployment. While conventional reactors produce around 800 megawatts of power, SMRs can deliver up to 300 megawatts.

Proponents consider them ideal as both part of the regular electricity grid as well as for use in remote locations, including industrial sites and isolated northern communities. They could also play a role in the production of hydrogen and local heating.

“SMRs will allow us to take a bold step of meeting our goal of net-zero (emissions) by 2050 while creating good, middle class jobs and strengthening our competitive advantage,” said Lefebvre.

Natural Resources Minister Seamus O’Regan had been scheduled to speak at the conference but did not due to a family emergency.

Industry critics were quick to pounce on the government’s expected SMR announcement. They called on Ottawa to halt its plans to fund the experimental technology.

While nuclear power generation produces no greenhouse gas emissions, a major problem facing the industry is its growing mound of radioactive waste. This week, the government embarked on a round of consultations about what do with the dangerous material.

Dozens of groups, including the NDP, Bloc Quebecois, Green Party and some Indigenous organizations, oppose the plan for developing small modular reactors. They want the government to fight climate change by investing more in renewable energy and energy efficiency.

“We have options that are cheaper and safer and will be available quicker,” Richard Cannings, the NDP natural resources critic, said in a statement.

Lefebvre, however, said the global market for SMRs is expected to be worth between $150 billion and $300 billion a year by 2040. As one of the world’s largest producers of uranium, Canada has to be part of the wave both for economic and environmental reasons, he said.

“There’s a growing demand for smaller, simpler and affordable nuclear technology energy,” Lefebvre said.

Joe McBrearty, head of Canadian Nuclear Laboratories, told the conference the company had signed a host agreement this week with Ottawa-based Global First Power for a demonstration SMR at its Chalk River campus in eastern Ontario. A demonstration reactor will allow for the assessment of the technology’s overall viability, he said.

“When talking about deploying a new technology like an SMR, building a demonstration unit is vital to the success of that process,” McBrearty said. “Most importantly, it allows the public to see the reactor, to kick the tires so to speak, and to have confidence in the safety of its operation.”

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