Compatibility of Amino Acids in Ice Ih: Implications for the Origin of Life

Article in Astrobiology 18(4) April 2018
DOI: 10.1089/ast.2017.1735

Jihua Hao, Elena Giovenco, Ulysse Pedreira-Segade, Gilles Montagnac, and Isabelle Daniel


Icy environments may have been common on early Earth due to the faint young sun. Previous studies have proposed that the formation of large icy bodies in the early ocean could concentrate the building blocks of life in eutectic fluids and, therefore, facilitate the polymerization of monomers. This hypothesis is based on the untested assumption that organic molecules are virtually incompatible in ice Ih (hexagonal ice). In this study, we conducted freezing experiments to explore the partitioning behavior of selected amino acids (AAs; glycine, l-alanine, l-proline, and l-phenylalanine) between ice Ih and aqueous solutions analogous to seawater. We allowed ice crystals to grow slowly from a few seeds in equilibrium with the solution and used Raman spectroscopy to analyze in situ the relative concentrations of AAs in the ice and aqueous solution. During freezing, there was no precipitation of AA crystals, indicating that the concentrations in solution never reached their solubility limit, even when the droplet was mostly frozen. Analyses of the Raman spectra of the ice and eutectic solution suggested that considerable amounts of AAs existed in the ice phase with partition coefficients varying between 0.2 and 0.5. These observations imply little incompatibility of AAs in ice Ih during the freezing of the solutions, rendering the concentration hypothesis in a eutectic system unwarranted. However, incorporation into ice Ih could protect AAs from decomposition or racemization and significantly improve the efficiency of extraterrestrial transport of small organics. Therefore, this study supports the hypothesis of extraterrestrial delivery of organic molecules in icy comets and asteroids to the primitive Earth as suggested by an increasing number of independent observations.

Key Words: Ice Ih—Partition coefficient—Amino acids—Polymerization—Extraterrestrial transport of organics.

Astrobiology 18, 381–392.

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