About this Author
DBL%20Hendrix%20small.png College chemistry, 1983

Derek Lowe The 2002 Model

Dbl%20new%20portrait%20B%26W.png After 10 years of blogging. . .

Derek Lowe, an Arkansan by birth, got his BA from Hendrix College and his PhD in organic chemistry from Duke before spending time in Germany on a Humboldt Fellowship on his post-doc. He's worked for several major pharmaceutical companies since 1989 on drug discovery projects against schizophrenia, Alzheimer's, diabetes, osteoporosis and other diseases. To contact Derek email him directly: Twitter: Dereklowe

Chemistry and Drug Data: Drugbank
Chempedia Lab
Synthetic Pages
Organic Chemistry Portal
Not Voodoo

Chemistry and Pharma Blogs:
Org Prep Daily
The Haystack
A New Merck, Reviewed
Liberal Arts Chemistry
Electron Pusher
All Things Metathesis
C&E News Blogs
Chemiotics II
Chemical Space
Noel O'Blog
In Vivo Blog
Terra Sigilatta
BBSRC/Douglas Kell
Realizations in Biostatistics
ChemSpider Blog
Organic Chem - Education & Industry
Pharma Strategy Blog
No Name No Slogan
Practical Fragments
The Curious Wavefunction
Natural Product Man
Fragment Literature
Chemistry World Blog
Synthetic Nature
Chemistry Blog
Synthesizing Ideas
Eye on FDA
Chemical Forums
Symyx Blog
Sceptical Chymist
Lamentations on Chemistry
Computational Organic Chemistry
Mining Drugs
Henry Rzepa

Science Blogs and News:
Bad Science
The Loom
Uncertain Principles
Fierce Biotech
Blogs for Industry
Omics! Omics!
Young Female Scientist
Notional Slurry
Nobel Intent
SciTech Daily
Science Blog
Gene Expression (I)
Gene Expression (II)
Adventures in Ethics and Science
Transterrestrial Musings
Slashdot Science
Cosmic Variance
Biology News Net

Medical Blogs
DB's Medical Rants
Science-Based Medicine
Respectful Insolence
Diabetes Mine

Economics and Business
Marginal Revolution
The Volokh Conspiracy
Knowledge Problem

Politics / Current Events
Virginia Postrel
Belmont Club
Mickey Kaus

Belles Lettres
Uncouth Reflections
Arts and Letters Daily
In the Pipeline: Don't miss Derek Lowe's excellent commentary on drug discovery and the pharma industry in general at In the Pipeline

In the Pipeline

« And Since We're Talking About Insider Trading | Main | TauRx Goes Into Phase III For Alzheimer's »

November 21, 2012

The Galaxy Is Full of Gunk

Email This Entry

Posted by Derek

We'll start off with a little extraterrestrial chemistry. As many will have heard, there are all sorts of hints being dropped that the sample analyzing equipment on the Mars Curiosity rover has detected something very interesting. We'll have to wait until the first week of December to find out what it is, but my money is on polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons or something other complex abiotic organics.

Here's a detailed look at the issue. The Martian surface has a pretty vigorous amount of perchlorate in it, which was not realized for a long time (and rather complicates the interpretation of some of the past experiments on it). But Curiosity's analytical suite was designed to deal with this, and my guess is that these techniques have worked and that organic material has been detected.

I would very much bet against any sort of strong signature of life-as-we-know-it, though. For one thing, finding that in a random sand dune would seem pretty unlikely. Actually, finding good traces anywhere in the top layer of Martian rock and dust seems unlikely (as opposed to deeper underground, where I'm willing to speculate freely on the possible existence/persistence of bacteria and such). And I'm not sure the Curiosity would be well equipped to discriminate abiotic versus biotic compounds, anyway.

But organic compounds in general, absolutely. This brings up an interestingly false idea that underlies a lot of casual thinking about Mars (and space in general). Many people have this mental picture of everywhere outside Earth being sort of like the surface of our moon. It leads to a false dichotomy: here we have temperate air, liquid water, life and the byproducts of life (oil and coal, for example). Out there is all cold barren rock directly exposed to vacuum and hard radiation. We associate "space" with clean, barren, surfaces and knife-edge shadows, whereas "down here" it's all wet and messy. Not so.

There's plenty of irradiated rock, true, but there's water all over the outer solar system, in huge amounts. And while what we see out there is frozen, it's a near-certainty that there are massive oceans of the liquid stuff down under the various crusts of the larger outer-planet moons. All those alien-invasion movies, the ones with the extraterrestrials after our planet's water, are fun but ridiculous examples of that false dichotomy in action. There's plenty of organic chemistry, too - I've written before about how the colors of Jupiter's clouds remind me of reaction byproducts, and it's no coincidence that they do. The gas giant planets are absolutely full of organic chemicals of all varieties, and they're getting heated, pressurized, mixed, irradiated, and zapped by huge lightning storms all the hours of their days. What isn't in there?

Everything came that way. The solar system has plenty of hydrocarbons, plenty of small carbohydrates, and plenty of amines and other nitrogen-containing compounds in it. The carbonaceous chrondrites are physical evidence that's fallen to Earth - some of these have clearly never been heated since their formation (since they're full of water and volatile organics), so the universe would seem to be awash in small-molecule gorp. There's another false dichotomy, that the materials for life are very rare and precious and only found down here on Earth. But they're everywhere.

Comments (13) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Chemical News | Life As We (Don't) Know It


1. Morten G on November 21, 2012 9:22 AM writes...

I guess it's interesting for questions of origin of life on earth? Even if it is just gunk?

Permalink to Comment

2. newnickname on November 21, 2012 11:15 AM writes...

"Grotzinger [said] NASA would hold a press conference about the results during the 2012 American Geophysical Union meeting in San Francisco from Dec 3 to 7. Because it’s so potentially earth-shaking, Grotzinger said the team remains cautious and is checking and double-checking their results."

Bacteria with arsenic-based DNA?

Should that be Mars-shaking?

Are fish on Mercury contaminated with earth?

Permalink to Comment

3. Anonymous on November 21, 2012 12:16 PM writes...

Did they figure out the truth???

Permalink to Comment

4. bad wolf on November 21, 2012 12:18 PM writes...

What, no Arsenic life jokes? Too soon?

Permalink to Comment

5. Nobody on November 21, 2012 1:03 PM writes...

My guess is that Mars is a living creature, and they just found its butthole.

Permalink to Comment

6. Christophe Verlinde on November 21, 2012 1:43 PM writes...

Interesting chemistry? Yes. But life on Mars? No. Mars has no magnetosphere. Therefore, it is constantly bombarded with highly energetic cosmic particles that should sterilize the red planet totally.

Permalink to Comment

7. Squib on November 21, 2012 5:29 PM writes...

The abundance of perchlorate (~0.6% of soil as of one NASA article) really seems to bode well for long term colonization. If you can get iron (O) up there, you pretty much have an unlimited supply of oxygen. In addition you get a nice supply of heat which could be harnessed as energy.

See the link through my name...

Permalink to Comment

8. Brett on November 21, 2012 6:32 PM writes...

Maybe they found the methane they were hoping to find. There's a blurb from November 2 in the NYT where they said they hadn't found traces of methane, which was a disappointment.

Permalink to Comment

10. eyesoars on November 21, 2012 11:10 PM writes...

@6: Go down six inches from the surface, and then what don't you have? We've barely scratched the surface in studying the lithotrophs we have here on Earth.

Permalink to Comment

11. Marsuvian on November 22, 2012 3:14 AM writes...

The Phalaxy is Full of Phunk!

Permalink to Comment

12. Space geek on November 22, 2012 6:56 PM writes...

Curious as to what this audience makes of Richard Hoover's work:

Seeing alien bugs where there aren't any? Terrestrial contamination due to sloppy procedures? Or is there a reasonable chance that he's right even if he has published in what would be generously categorized as obscure journals?

Permalink to Comment

13. Anne on November 29, 2012 8:10 PM writes...

It's not just planets and asteroids that are full of weird and wonderful organics. As a radio astronomer I keep hearing about new compounds- the last was some sugar or other- turning up in molecular clouds or loose in interstellar space. Of course, we notice them because they have all those handy spectral lines rather than because they're omnipresent, but they're still out there.

Permalink to Comment


Remember Me?


Email this entry to:

Your email address:

Message (optional):

The Last Post
The GSK Layoffs Continue, By Proxy
The Move is Nigh
Another Alzheimer's IPO
Cutbacks at C&E News
Sanofi Pays to Get Back Into Oncology
An Irresponsible Statement About Curing Cancer
Oliver Sacks on Turning Back to Chemistry