Building Blocks

By The Daily Galaxy

DNA is synonymous with life, but where did it originate? One way to answer this question is to try to recreate the conditions that formed DNA’s molecular precursors. These precursors are carbon ring structures with embedded nitrogen atoms, key components of nucleobases, which themselves are building blocks of the double helix.

Now, researchers from the U.S. Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Lab (Berkeley Lab) and the University of Hawaii atManoa have shown for the first time that cosmic hot spots, such as those near stars, could be excellent environments for the creation of these nitrogen-containing molecular rings.In a new paper in the Astrophysical Journal, the team describes the experiment in which they recreate conditions around carbon-rich, dying stars to find formation pathways of the important molecules.

“This is the first time anyone’s looked at a hot reaction like this,” says Musahid Ahmed, scientist in the Chemical Sciences Division at Berkeley Lab. It’s not easy for carbon atoms to form rings that contain nitrogen, he says. But this new work demonstrates the possibility of a hot gas phase reaction, what Ahmed calls the “cosmic barbeque.”

For decades, astronomers have pointed their telescopes into space to look for signatures of these nitrogen-containing double carbon rings called quinoline, Ahmed explains. They’ve focused mostly on the space between stars called the interstellar medium. While the stellar environment has been deemed a likely candidate for the formation of carbon ring structures, no one had spent much time looking there for nitrogen-containing carbon rings.

To recreate the conditions near a star, Ahmed and his long-time collaborator, Ralf Kaiser, professor of chemistry at the University of Hawaii, Manoa, and their colleagues, which include Dorian Parker at Hawaii, and Oleg Kostko and Tyler Troy of Berkeley Lab, turned to the Advanced Light Source (ALS), a Department of Energy user facility located at Berkeley Lab.

At the ALS, the researchers used a device called a hot nozzle, previously used to successfully confirm soot formation during combustion. In the present study the hot nozzle is used to simulate the pressures and temperatures in stellar environments of carbon-rich stars. Into the hot nozzle, the researchers injected a gas made of a nitrogen-containing single ringed carbon molecule and two short carbon-hydrogen molecules called acetylene.

Then, using synchrotron radiation from the ALS, the team probed the hot gas to see which molecules formed. They found that the 700-Kelvin nozzle transformed the initial gas into one made of the nitrogen-containing ring molecules called quinolone and isoquinoline, considered the next step up in terms of complexity.

“There’s an energy barrier for this reaction to take place, and you can exceed that barrier near a star or in our experimental setup,” Ahmed says. “This suggests that we can start looking for these molecules around stars now.”

These experiments provide compelling evidence that the key molecules of quinolone and isoquinoline can be synthesized in these hot environments and then be ejected with the stellar wind to the interstellar medium – the space between stars, says Kaiser.

“Once ejected in space, in cold molecular clouds, these molecules can then condense on cold interstellar nanoparticles, where they can be processed and functionalized.” Kaiser adds. “These processes might lead to more complex, biorelevant molecules such as nucleobases of crucial importance to DNA and RNA formation.”

In 2008, cosmologists mapping out the origins of high-energy cosmic rays reaching Earth have discovered two unexpected “hotspots” shown in the image at the top of the page.

Cosmic Threat

By the Daily Galaxy

What happens to an astronaut’s brain during a mission to Mars? Nothing good. It’s besieged by destructive particles that can forever impair cognition, according to a UC Irvine radiation oncology study. Charles Limoli and colleagues found that exposure to highly energetic charged particles – much like those found in the galactic cosmic rays that bombard astronauts during extended spaceflights – cause significant damage to the central nervous system, resulting in cognitive impairments.

“This is not positive news for astronauts deployed on atwo- to three-year round trip to Mars,” saidLimoli, a professor of radiation oncology in UCI’s School of Medicine. “Performance decrements, memory deficits, and loss of awareness and focus during spaceflight may affect mission-critical activities, and exposure to these particles may have long-term adverse consequences to cognition throughout life.”For the study, rodents were subjected to charged particle irradiation (fully ionized oxygen and titanium) at the NASA Space Radiation Laboratory at the Brookhaven National Laboratory before being sent back to Limoli’s Irvine lab.

The researchers found that exposure to these particles resulted in brain inflammation, which disrupted the transmission of signals among neurons. Imaging revealed how the brain’s communication network was impaired through reductions in the structure of nerve cells called dendrites and spines. Additional synaptic alterations in combination with the structural changes interfered with the capability of nerve cells to efficiently transmit electrochemical signals. Furthermore, these differences were parallel to decreased performance on behavioral tasks designed to test learning and memory.

Similar types of more severe cognitive dysfunction are common in brain cancer patients who have received various photon-based radiation treatments at much higher doses. In other research, Limoli studies the impact of chemotherapy and cranial irradiation on cognition.

While cognitive deficits in astronauts would take months to manifest, Limoli said, the time required for a mission to Mars is sufficient for such deficits to develop. People working for extended periods on the International Space Station do not face the same level of bombardment with galactic cosmic rays, as they are still within the protective magnetosphere of the Earth.

The irradiated particles that compose these galactic cosmic rays are mainly remnants of past supernova events.

Limoli’s work is part of NASA’s Human Research Program. Investigating how space radiation affects astronauts and learning ways to mitigate those effects are critical to further human exploration of space, and NASA needs to consider these risks as it plans for missions to Mars and beyond.

But what can be done to protect astronauts speeding off to the red planet?

As a partial solution, Limoli said, spacecraft could be designed to include areas of increased shielding, such as those used for rest and sleep. However, these highly energetic particles will traverse the ship nonetheless, he noted, “and there is really no escaping them.”

Preventative treatments offer some hope. “We are working on pharmacologic strategies involving compounds that scavenge free radicals and protect neurotransmission,” Limoli said. “But these remain to be optimized and are under development.”

Dinosaur Killer

By the Daily Galaxy

The asteroid that slammed into the ocean off Mexico 66 million years ago and killed off the dinosaurs probably rang the Earth like a bell, triggering volcanic eruptions around the globe that may have contributed to the devastation, according to a team of University of California, Berkeley, geophysicists.

Specifically, the researchers argue that the impact likely triggered most of the immense eruptions of lava in India known as the Deccan Traps, explaining the “uncomfortably close” coincidence between the Deccan Traps eruptions and the impact, which has always cast doubt on the theory that the asteroid was the sole cause of the end-Cretaceous mass extinction.”If you try to explain why the largest impact we know of in the last billion years happened within 100,000 years of these massive lava flows at Deccan … the chances of that occurring at random are minuscule,” said team leader Mark Richards, UC Berkeley professor of earth and planetary science. “It’s not a very credible coincidence.”

Richards and his colleagues marshal evidence for their theory that the impact reignited the Deccan flood lavas in a paper to be published in The Geological Society of America Bulletin, available online today (April 30) in advance of publication.

While the Deccan lava flows, which started before the impact but erupted for several hundred thousand years after re-ignition, probably spewed immense amounts of carbon dioxide and other noxious, climate-modifying gases into the atmosphere, it’s still unclear if this contributed to the demise of most of life on Earth at the end of the Age of Dinosaurs, Richards said.

“This connection between the impact and the Deccan lava flows is a great story and might even be true, but it doesn’t yet take us closer to understanding what actually killed the dinosaurs and the ‘forams,'” he said, referring to tiny sea creatures called foraminifera, many of which disappeared from the fossil record virtually overnight at the boundary between the Cretaceous and Tertiary periods, called the KT boundary. The disappearance of the landscape-dominating dinosaurs is widely credited with ushering in the age of mammals, eventually including humans.

He stresses that his proposal differs from an earlier hypothesis that the energy of the impact was focused around Earth to a spot directly opposite, or antipodal, to the impact, triggering the eruption of the Deccan Traps. The “antipodal focusing” theory died when the impact crater, called Chicxulub, was found off the Yucatán coast of Mexico, which is about 5,000 kilometers from the antipode of the Deccan traps.

Richards proposed in 1989 that plumes of hot rock, called “plume heads,” rise through Earth’s mantle every 20-30 million years and generate huge lava flows, called flood basalts, like the Deccan Traps. It struck him as more than coincidence that the last four of the six known mass extinctions of life occurred at the same time as one of these massive eruptions.

Paul Renne‘s group at Berkeley showed years ago that the Central Atlantic Magmatic Province is associated with the mass extinction at the Triassic/Jurassic boundary 200 million years ago, and the Siberian Traps are associated with the end Permian extinction 250 million years ago, and now we also know that a big volcanic eruption in China called the Emeishan Traps is associated with the end-Guadalupian extinction 260 million years ago,” Richards said. “Then you have the Deccan eruptions – including the largest mapped lava flows on Earth – occurring 66 million years ago coincident with the KT mass extinction. So what really happened at the KT boundary?”

Richards teamed up with experts in many areas to try to discover faults with his radical idea that the impact triggered the Deccan eruptions, but instead came up with supporting evidence. Renne, a professor in residence in the UC Berkeley Department of Earth and Planetary Science and director of the Berkeley Geochronology Center, re-dated the asteroid impact and mass extinction two years ago and found them essentially simultaneous, but also within approximately 100,000 years of the largest Deccan eruptions, referred to as the Wai subgroup flows, which produced about 70 percent of the lavas that now stretch across the Indian subcontinent from Mumbai to Kolkata.

Michael Manga, a professor in the same department, has shown over the past decade that large earthquakes – equivalent to Japan’s 9.0 Tohoku quake in 2011 – can trigger nearby volcanic eruptions. Richards calculates that the asteroid that created the Chicxulub crater might have generated the equivalent of a magnitude 9 or larger earthquake everywhere on Earth, sufficient to ignite the Deccan flood basalts and perhaps eruptions many places around the globe, including at mid-ocean ridges.

“It’s inconceivable that the impact could have melted a whole lot of rock away from the impact site itself, but if you had a system that already had magma and you gave it a little extra kick, it could produce a big eruption,” Manga said.

Similarly, Deccan lava from before the impact is chemically different from that after the impact, indicating a faster rise to the surface after the impact, while the pattern of dikes from which the supercharged lava flowed – “like cracks in a soufflé,” Renne said – are more randomly oriented post-impact.

“There is a profound break in the style of eruptions and the volume and composition of the eruptions,” said Renne. “The whole question is, ‘Is that discontinuity synchronous with the impact?'”

Richards, Renne and graduate student Courtney Sprain, along with Deccan volcanology experts Steven Self and Loÿc Vanderkluysen, visited India in April 2014 to obtain lava samples for dating, and noticed that there are pronounced weathering surfaces, or terraces, marking the onset of the huge Wai subgroup flows. Geological evidence suggests that these terraces may signal a period of quiescence in Deccan volcanism prior to the Chicxulub impact. Apparently never before noticed, these terraces are part of the western Ghats, a mountain chain named after the Hindu word for steps.

“This was an existing massive volcanic system that had been there probably several million years, and the impact gave this thing a shake and it mobilized a huge amount of magma over a short amount of time,” Richards said. “The beauty of this theory is that it is very testable, because it predicts that you should have the impact and the beginning of the extinction, and within 100,000 years or so you should have these massive eruptions coming out, which is about how long it might take for the magma to reach the surface.”

Since the team’s paper was accepted for publication, a group from Princeton University published new radioisotopic dates for the Deccan Traps lavas that are consistent with these predictions. Renne and Sprain at UC Berkeley also have preliminary, unpublished dates for the Deccan lavas that could help solidify Richards’ theory, Renne said.