Asteroids – rocky objects near Earth orbiting the sun – are the parent bodies of most meteorites. And theory suggests that chemical reactions within the asteroids can create some of the elements necessary for life.
Researchers have found sugars such as arabinose and xylose – but the most significant finding was ribose.
Ribose plays an extremely important role in our human biology. It exists in our RNA (ribonucleic acid) molecules and delivers messages from our DNA to help build proteins for our bodies, according to a press release.
"It is notable that a molecule as fragile as ribose can be detected in such ancient material," NASA's co-author of the study, asoneyson Doberin, said in a press release.
The discovery of ribose also suggests that RNA has evolved before DNA, giving scientists a clearer picture of how life can be formed.
DNA has long been considered a "template for life" – but RNA molecules have more possibilities, such as replication without the help of other molecules, the press release said. These additional possibilities, combined with the fact that researchers have yet to find DNA sugars in meteorites, support the theory that "RNA coordinated the machinery of life before DNA."
"The research provides the first direct evidence of space-borne ribozyme and the delivery of sugar on Earth," Yoshihiro Yurukawa of Japan's Tohoku University, lead author of the study, said in a press release. "Extraterrestrial sugar can contribute to the formation of the prebiotic RNA of the Earth which may lead to the origin of life."
Of course, meteorites are likely to be contaminated with life on Earth – but testing has revealed evidence that it is unlikely and that sugars are likely to originate from space.
Now, researchers will continue to analyze meteorites to see how abundant these sugars are and how they can affect life on Earth.