The first experimental evidence showing how atmospheric nitrogen can be incorporated into organic macromolecules is being reported by a University of Arizona team.
The finding indicates what organic molecules might be found on Titan, the moon of Saturn that scientists think is a model for the chemistry of pre-life Earth.
Earth and Titan are the only known planetary-sized bodies that have thick, predominantly nitrogen atmospheres, said Hiroshi Imanaka, who conducted the research while a member of UA's chemistry and biochemistry department.
How complex organic molecules become nitrogenated in settings like early Earth or Titan's atmosphere is a big mystery, Imanaka said.
"Titan is so interesting because its nitrogen-dominated atmosphere and organic chemistry might give us a clue to the origin of life on our Earth," said Imanaka, now an assistant research scientist in the UA's Lunar and Planetary Laboratory. "Nitrogen is an essential element of life."
However, not just any nitrogen will do. Nitrogen gas must be converted to a more chemically active form of nitrogen that can drive the reactions that form the basis of biological systems.
Imanaka and Mark Smith converted a nitrogen-methane gas mixture similar to Titan's atmosphere into a collection of nitrogen-containing organic molecules by irradiating the gas with high-energy UV rays. The laboratory set-up was designed to mimic how solar radiation affects Titan's atmosphere.
Most of the nitrogen moved directly into solid compounds, rather than gaseous ones, said Smith, a UA professor and head of chemistry and biochemistry. Previous models predicted the nitrogen would move from gaseous compounds to solid ones in a lengthier stepwise process.
Titan looks orange in color because a smog of organic molecules envelops the planet. The particles in the smog will eventually settle down to the surface and may be exposed to conditions that could c
University of Arizona