origins of life

Breakthrough Synthesis Reveals New Clues in Search for the Origins of Life

In a move that brings us closer to understanding the cosmic origins of life, scientists at the University of Hawaii at Mānoa (UH) have synthesized a molecule critical to the metabolism of living organisms under conditions mimicking the cold, icy reaches of deep space. 

The breakthrough, detailed in a recent publication in Science Advances, demonstrates that the building blocks of life could initially have been formed far beyond Earth, offering fresh insights into the long-standing question of how life began in the universe.

The research, led by Professor Ralf I. Kaiser of the UH Mānoa Department of Chemistry, alongside postdoctoral fellows Jia Wang and Joshua H. Marks, and in collaboration with computational chemist Professor Ryan C. Fortenberry from the University of Mississippi, centers on the formation of glyceric acid. 

Glyceric acid, the simplest sugar acid, plays a pivotal role in glycolysis—the process by which living cells break down food into energy. The team’s experiments simulated outer space’s icy, carbon dioxide-rich environments, using interstellar model ice coated on nanoparticles and subjected to proxies of Galactic Cosmic Rays.

At the heart of their experiments was the synthesis of racemic glyceric acid at the exceedingly low temperature of 10 Kelvin (-441.67 F). Researchers meticulously observed the entire process using photo-ionization lasers, allowing the detection of these molecules in the gas phase. 

Synthesizing glyceric acid under these harsh conditions provides a plausible scenario for the genesis of essential life components in the frigid vastness of space. 

“The study suggests that molecules like glyceric acid could have been synthesized in molecular clouds and possibly in star-forming regions prior to their delivery to Earth via comets or meteorites, thus contributing to the building blocks of life,” Dr. Kaiser said in a statement. Understanding how these molecules form in space is crucial for unraveling the mysteries of life’s origins.”

Earth is currently the only place in the universe known to harbor life. However, to fully grasp the importance of this new discovery and its implications for the possibility of life beyond Earth, it’s essential to understand it in the context of abiogenesis – the scientific exploration of how life initially emerged.

Among the most prominent hypotheses on the origins of life on Earth is the primordial soup theory, which posits that life began in a warm, nutrient-rich pond or ocean when chemicals from the atmosphere and some form of energy combined to make amino acids, the building blocks of proteins. 

This theory was famously supported by the 1953 Miller-Urey experiment, which demonstrated that organic compounds could be created from inorganic precursors under conditions thought to resemble those of early Earth.

Another influential theory, the panspermia hypothesis, offers a cosmic perspective. It proposes that life or its precursors originated outside Earth and were brought to our planet via comets, meteorites, or interstellar dust. At the core of this theory is that all life as we know it did not originate on Earth but evolved and was naturally seeded to the planet from an unknown extraterrestrial source. 

Mainstream scientists often view Panspermia as a “fringe theory” because it does not address how life began. Instead, it proposes a method for how life could move from one celestial body to another.

Nevertheless, Panspermia remains an intriguing theory because it aligns with recent discoveries like the detection of nitrogen and amino acids in the Winchcombe Meteorite by German scientists. 

Additionally, the detection of complex organic molecules in regions of space associated with star formation, as observed by telescopes such as the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA), has lent credence to the hypothesis that life’s ingredients were indeed cosmic wanderers.

The University of Hawaiʻi researchers’ successful creation of glyceric acid under space-like extreme conditions strengthens the theory that the essential elements necessary for life can form across the expanse of space. This breakthrough adds a vital piece to the puzzle of the origins of life, suggesting that the components needed for life are common throughout the universe. It also advances the idea that life’s emergence is not just an Earth-specific event but a universal certainty.

Co-author of the study, Dr. Ryan C. Fortenberry, highlighted the significance of these findings and the role of new technologies in unraveling the mysteries of life’s beginnings.

“The potential presence of such molecules in space shows how the chemistry in our bodies is connected to the chemistry of ‘the beyond,'” Fortenberry said. “Additionally, the interaction of experiment and computation also highlights how different perspectives on science work together to make the generation of new knowledge possible.” 

Tim McMillan is a retired law enforcement executive, investigative reporter and co-founder of The Debrief. His writing typically focuses on defense, national security, the Intelligence Community and topics related to psychology. You can follow Tim on Twitter: @LtTimMcMillan.  Tim can be reached by email: or through encrypted email: