Astrophysical and astrochemical insights into the origin of life

Stellar nucleosynthesis of heavy elements such as carbon allowed the formation of organic molecules in space, which appear to be widespread in our Galaxy. The physical and chemical conditions—including density, temperature, ultraviolet (UV) radiation and energetic particles—determine reaction pathways and the complexity of organic molecules in different space environments. Dense interstellar clouds are the birth sites of stars of all masses and their planetary systems. During the protostellar collapse, interstellar organic molecules in gaseous and solid phases are integrated into protostellar disks from which planets and smaller solar system bodies form. After the formation of the planets 4.6 billion years ago, our solar system, including the Earth, was subjected to frequent impacts for several hundred million years. Life on Earth may have emerged during or shortly after this heavy bombardment phase, perhaps as early as 3.90–3.85 billion years ago, but the exact timing remains uncertain. A prebiotic reducing atmosphere, if present, predicts that building blocks of biopolymers—such as amino acids, sugars, purines and pyrimidines—would be formed in abundance. Recent modelling of the Earth's early atmosphere suggests, in contrast, more neutral conditions (e.g. H2O, N2, CO2), thus, precluding the formation of significant concentrations of prebiotic organic compounds. Moreover, even if the Earth's atmosphere were reducing, the presence of UV photons would readily destroy organic compounds unless they were quickly sequestered away in rocks or in the prebiotic ocean. Other possible sources of organic compounds would be high temperature vent chemistry, although the stability of such compounds (bases, amino acids) in these environments remains problematic. Finally, organic compounds may have been delivered to the Earth by asteroids, comets and smaller fragments, such as meteorites and interplanetary dust particles.
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