SOAL research focuses on the analysis of organic molecules of astrobiological relevance in order to better understand the prebiotic inventory available on Earth during the origins of life. This includes analyses of molecules directly isolated from extraterrestrial samples, such as meteorites and returned samples, laboratory reaction products, and in situ analyses of distant objects. Meteorites are particularly interesting because they are the surviving fragments of asteroids and comets that have impacted the Earth, objects that formed during the early evolution of the solar system, and we can study them in the lab. While prebiotic chemistry on Earth has been overwritten by ~4 billion years of biotic chemistry, meteorites are nearly pristine chemical "fossils," having recorded chemistry that took place prior to the origins of life, and therefore offer authentic snapshots of prebiotic chemistry in our solar system.
Many types of organic molecules have been found to be indigenous to meteorites, including molecules critical for contemporary organisms such as amino-, hydroxy-, and carboxylic acids, aldehydes and ketones, amines, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, nucleobases, and sugar acids. Amino acids in particular have been measured in several meteorites whose parent asteroids have experienced varying degrees of thermal alteration and aqueous alteration. The overall abundances and isomeric distributions of meteoritic amino acids have been shown to vary depending on the alteration history of a given meteorite, providing clues to how these molecules were formed. Because asteroids have been impacting the Earth since its formation, meteorites likely played a significant role in adding to the inventory of molecules available during the origins of life. A recent study using high-resolution mass spectrometry estimated that the soluble organic content of the Murchison meteorite contains tens of thousands of unique molecular formulas, spanning millions of isomers. Only a small fraction of these molecules has been identified, leaving a great deal of work to be done. In addition, the analysis of different kinds of meteorites has revealed significant variation of meteoritic organics depending on the mineralogy and alteration history of meteorites, highlighting our rather limited understanding of what compounds were available at the origins of life on Earth, and elsewhere in the universe.
The SOAL has an array of analytical instrumentation. This includes a Waters Xevo G2-XS quadrupole/time of flight hybrid mass spectrometer (QToF-MS) with Ultra Performance Liquid Chromatograph (UPLC) and Direct Analysis in Real Time (DART) sources; a Thermo Trace 1310 gas chromatograph with a Thermo ISQ mass spectrometer (GC-MS); and a Thermo Ultra-High Performance Liquid Chromatograph with fluorescence and photodiode array detectors.