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2000 Annual Science Report

Pennsylvania State University Reporting  |  JUL 1999 – JUN 2000

The Prebiotic Chemistry of Hydrogen Cyanide

4 Institutions
3 Teams
0 Publications
0 Field Sites
Field Sites

Project Progress

Research by undergraduates Emily Stauffer and Kim Kahle, particularly in the last two summers has demonstrated that a Titan atmospheric chemistry simulation product (“tholin”) yields a suite of thermal/hydrolytic degradation products that are very similar in composition to the mixture of degradation products from HCN polymer. This was done using a new method for analyzing high molecular weight macromolecular materials called tetramethylammonium hydroxide (TMAH) thermochemolysis GC-MS (Minard et al. 1998). This provided strong support for the concept that HCN chemistry is an important part of the atmospheric chemistry of Titan and that HCN polymer is a major component of the orange-colored haze in that atmosphere. This work was reported in an Origin of Life Symposium in the Geochemistry Division at the American Chemical Society meeting in San Francisco on April 4th, 2000 and should appear in an issue of Geochemistry (Minard et al. 2000).

Research by undergraduate Vanessa Amme in the summer of 1999 attempted to follow the initial steps of HCN polymerization by HPLC, NMR and APCI-MS. Most significant was the development of a method to quickly produce HCN trimer, aminomalononitrile, in order to study its oligomerization reactions using these methods.

The collaborative work with Paul Braterman involves the examination of HCN polymerization products formed on aluminum magnesium layered double hydroxide mineral analogues.

Analytical methodology was developed to look at the products from carbon monoxide hydration in collaboration with Martin Schoonen.

Undergraduate Marc Fiddler has worked on improving methods for carrying out tetramethylammonium hydroxide thermochemolysis on macromolecular materials such as tholins, HCN polymer and meteoritic organic matter and will continue his work this summer.

In the upcoming summer, four undergraduates (Eastwood, Fiddler, Longsdorf and Schendel) will continue studies aimed at unraveling the macromolecular structures of materials relevant to the origin of life such as HCN polymer, tholin and other prebiotic chemistry simulation products, and the organic material in meteorites using all of the analytical techniques described. In addition, a graduate student in Dr. Karl Mueller’s research group, Kathy Gross, will start 13C/15N solid state NMR studies of these materials.

In August, a student from Martin Schoonen’s lab at SUNY Stony Brook, Robin Penfield, will come to our labs at Penn State to use the GC-MS system to search for acetic and higher organic acids formed in her CO hydration studies.

    Paul Braterman
    Project Investigator

    Robert Minard
    Project Investigator

    Martin Schoonen
    Project Investigator

    Clifford Matthews

    Marc Fiddler
    Research Staff

    Cathy Gross
    Graduate Student

    Vanessa Amme
    Undergraduate Student

    Amy Eastwood
    Undergraduate Student

    Kim Kahle
    Undergraduate Student

    Kristy Longsdorf
    Undergraduate Student

    Jessica Schendel
    Undergraduate Student

    Emily Stauffer
    Undergraduate Student

    Objective 1.0
    Determine whether the atmosphere of the early Earth, hydrothermal systems or exogenous matter were significant sources of organic matter.

    Objective 2.0
    Develop and test plausible pathways by which ancient counterparts of membrane systems, proteins and nucleic acids were synthesized from simpler precursors and assembled into protocells.

    Objective 9.0
    Determine the presence of life's chemical precursors and potential habitats for life in the outer solar system.