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Scientists have discovered the origins of the building blocks of life – HeritageDaily

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Rutgers researchers have discovered the origins of the protein structures responsible for metabolism: simple molecules that powered early life on Earth and serve as chemical signals that NASA could use to search for life on other planets.

Their study, which predicts what the earliest proteins looked like 3.5 billion to 2.5 billion years ago, is published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The scientists retraced, like a many thousand piece puzzle, the evolution of enzymes (proteins) from the present to the deep past. The solution to the puzzle required two missing pieces, and life on Earth could not exist without them. By constructing a network connected by their roles in metabolism, this team discovered the missing pieces.

“We know very little about how life started on our planet. This work allowed us to glimpse deep in time and propose the earliest metabolic proteins,” said co-author Vikas Nanda, a professor of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical School and a resident faculty member at the Center for Advanced Biotechnology and Medicine. “Our predictions will be tested in the laboratory to better understand the origins of life on Earth and to inform how life may originate elsewhere. We are building models of proteins in the lab and testing whether they can trigger reactions critical for early metabolism.”

This image shows a fold (shape) that may have been one of the earliest proteins in the evolution of metabolism. Credit : Vikas Nanda/Rutgers University

A Rutgers-led team of scientists called ENIGMA (Evolution of Nanomachines in Geospheres and Microbial Ancestors) is conducting the research with a NASA grant and via membership in the NASA Astrobiology Program. The ENIGMA project seeks to reveal the role of the simplest proteins that catalyzed the earliest stages of life.

“We think life was built from very small building blocks and emerged like a Lego set to make cells and more complex organisms like us,” said senior author Paul G. Falkowski, ENIGMA principal investigator and a distinguished professor at Rutgers University-New Brunswick who leads the Environmental Biophysics and Molecular Ecology Laboratory. “We think we have found the building blocks of life – the Lego set that led, ultimately, to the evolution of cells, animals and plants.”

The Rutgers team focused on two protein “folds” that are likely the first structures in early metabolism. They are a ferredoxin fold that binds iron-sulfur compounds, and a “Rossmann” fold, which binds nucleotides (the building blocks of DNA and RNA). These are two pieces of the puzzle that must fit in the evolution of life.

Proteins are chains of amino acids and a chain’s 3D path in space is called a fold. Ferredoxins are metals found in modern proteins and shuttle electrons around cells to promote metabolism. Electrons flow through solids, liquids and gases and power living systems, and the same electrical force must be present in any other planetary system with a chance to support life.

There is evidence the two folds may have shared a common ancestor and, if true, the ancestor may have been the first metabolic enzyme of life.

RUTGERS UNIVERSITY

Header Image Credit : Nicolle Rager, National Science Foundation

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Celebrate Yuri's Night 2020 online with Bill Nye, astronauts and more this weekend! – Space.com

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This Saturday (April 11), 50 years after Apollo 13 launched to the moon, you can celebrate human spaceflight with a Yuri’s Night livestream event. 

Yuri’s Night events have been held annually since 2001 and were originally designed as a way to celebrate human spaceflight. The event is named after cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, who became the first human to go to space on April 12, 1961. 

In addition to the main annual Yuri’s Night event, including music, art, science and more, people also independently throw their own “Yuri’s Nights” all around the world however they want in whatever location they want.

Related: Vostok 1: How the First Human Spaceflight Worked (Infographic)

However, while “there is no ‘typical’ Yuri’s Night party,” Tim Bailey, executive director of Yuri’s Night, told Space.com in an email, this weekend will certainly be different from previous celebrations. “This year almost all local events have been canceled to help slow the spread of the coronavirus,” he said. The closures also mean that the annual event will be livestreamed. 

But the online event will feature an all-star cast of scientists, artists and astronauts who will be participating in the event. Spaceflyers taking part include South Korean astronaut Soyeon Yi, Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield and retired NASA astronauts Nicole Stott and Scott Kelly, Bailey said, while other guests include celebrity science communicator Bill Nye, former rocket scientist and current CEO of Girl Scouts of the USA Silvia Acevedo, founding member of the Grateful Dead Bob Weir and “Star Trek: Voyager” actor Robert Picardo.

Alongside the livestream, Yuri’s Night will hold a costume contest to mark the occasion, so don your favorite flight suit or get creative and make an imaginative space-inspired costume with things you already have at home. You could even win “fabulous prizes,” Bailey said, if you enter your costume by posting it on Twitter with the hashtag #YurisNight. 

You can watch the livestream and stay up-to-date with the evolving list of guests here

Follow Chelsea Gohd on Twitter @chelsea_gohd. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom and on Facebook.

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Mercury-bound spacecraft buzzes Earth, beams back pictures – CityNews Edmonton

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CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — A Mercury-bound spacecraft swooped past Earth on Friday, tweaking its round-about path to the solar system’s smallest and innermost planet.

Launched 1 1/2 years ago, Europe and Japan’s Bepi-Colombo spacecraft passed within 8,000 miles (12,700 kilometres) of Earth. The closest approach occurred over the South Atlantic, with telescopes in Chile catching a glimpse of the speeding spacecraft.

The gravity tug from Earth slowed Bepi-Colombo and put it on a course closer to the sun.

It was the first of nine planetary gravity assists — and the only one involving Earth — on the spacecraft’s seven-year journey to Mercury. The spacecraft — comprised of two scientific orbiters — should reach Mercury in 2025, after swinging twice past Venus and six times past Mercury itself. The next flyby will be at Venus in October.

Before leaving Earth’s vicinity, Bepi-Colombo beamed back black-and-white pictures of the home planet. The spacecraft holds three GoPro-type cameras.

“These selfies from space are humbling, showing our planet, the common home that we share, in one of the most troubling and uncertain periods many of us have gone through,” Gunther Hasinger, the European Space Agency’s science director, said via Twitter.

The space agency’s control centre in Germany had fewer staff than usual for Friday’s operation because of the coronavirus pandemic. The ground controllers sat far apart as they monitored the flyby. Data from the flyby will be used to calibrate Bepi-Colombo’s science instruments.

Scientists hope to learn more about the origin and composition of Mercury, once the European and Japanese orbiters separate and begin their own circling of the scorched planet.

Mercury is the least explored of our solar system’s four rocky planets. It’s just a little bigger than our moon and circles the sun in just 88 days.

The spacecraft is named after Italian mathematician and engineer Giuseppe “Bepi” Colombo, who devised the use of planetary flybys for Mercury encounters. He died in 1984.

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The Associated Press Health and Science Department receives support from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Department of Science Education. The AP is solely responsible for all content.

Marcia Dunn, The Associated Press

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50 years after Apollo 13, we can now see the moon as the astronauts did – Space.com

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This Saturday (April 11) will mark 50 years since NASA’s Apollo 13 mission launched on an unexpectedly tumultuous journey around the moon. Now, a modern lunar orbiter has reconstructed what the Apollo 13 astronauts would have seen of the lunar surface. 

Famously described as a “successful failure,” Apollo 13 did not go as planned: An oxygen tank exploded 56 hours into the mission. Thankfully, some fast-thinking teamwork between the astronauts and mission control back on Earth salvaged the mission and, after a trip around the moon, the astronauts safely returned to Earth. 

So, while the crew didn’t land on the moon as planned, they did travel around it and, thanks to modern technology, we can now see what they saw on this journey. 

Related: Apollo 13 in Real-Time website offers new insight into mission

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A photo of the lunar surface taken by the Apollo 13 astronauts on their trip around the moon. (Image credit: NASA)

A photo of the lunar surface taken by the Apollo 13 astronauts on their trip around the moon. 

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Soon after sunrise, the Apollo 13 crew snapped this incredible shot of the moon.

Soon after sunrise, the Apollo 13 crew snapped this incredible shot of the moon. (Image credit: NASA)

Soon after sunrise, the Apollo 13 crew snapped this incredible shot of the moon. 

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A snapshot of the Tsiolkovskiy crater, taken by the Apollo 13 crew with a telephoto lens.

A snapshot of the Tsiolkovskiy crater, taken by the Apollo 13 crew with a telephoto lens. (Image credit: NASA)

A snapshot of the Tsiolkovskiy crater, taken by the Apollo 13 crew with a telephoto lens. 

Researchers used data from NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter mission to recreate what the Apollo 13 crew saw as they flew around the far side of the moon. In the video, you can see craters and other lunar features emerge from the darkness. You can imagine yourself as any of the crewmembers — commander Jim Lovell, command module pilot Jack Swigert or lunar module pilot Fred Haise — looking down and watching the lunar surface pass by as the spacecraft flew overhead. 

In addition to the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter data, the researchers also consulted the Apollo 13 flight plan and, despite the major change in plans with the mission, were able to use the position and speed at the craft’s closest point to the Moon which was listed in the Apollo 13 Mission Report. Taken together, those details allowed them to determine factors including the position and speed of the spacecraft at its closest point to the moon, which helped clarify the vehicle’s trajectory. 

To create this virtual trip around the moon, this team was also informed by photos taken by the Apollo 13 crew during this trip around the moon. You can see some of the captivating original images above, but you can also find every Apollo 13 photo ever online in the Apollo Image Atlas

Follow Chelsea Gohd on Twitter @chelsea_gohd. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom and on Facebook.

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