Synthesis of functionalized nitrogen-containing polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons and other prebiotic compounds in impacting glycine solutions
Proteinogenic amino acids can be produced on or delivered to a planet via impacting abiotic sources and consequently were likely present before the emergence of life on Earth. However, the role that these materials played in prebiotic scenarios remains an open question, in part because little is known about the survivability and reactivity of astrophysical organic compounds upon impact with a planetary surface. To this end, we use a force-matched semi-empirical quantum simulation method to study impacts of aqueous proteinogenic amino acids at conditions reaching 48 GPa and 3000 K. Here, we probe a relatively unstudied mechanism for prebiotic synthesis where sudden heating and pressurization causes condensation of complex carbon-rich structures from mixtures of glycine, the simplest protein-forming amino acid. These carbon-containing clusters are stable on short timescales and undergo a fundamental structural transition upon expansion and cooling from predominantly sp3-bonded tetrahedral-like moieties to those that are more sp2-bonded and planar. The recovered sp2-bonded structures include large nitrogen containing polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (NPAHs) with a number of different functional groups and embedded bonded regions akin to oligo-peptides. A number of small organic molecules with prebiotic relevance are also predicted to form. This work presents an alternate route to gas-phase synthesis for the formation of NPAHs of high complexity and highlights the significance of both the thermodynamic path and local chemical self-assembly in forming prebiotic species during shock synthesis. Our results help determine the role of comets and other celestial bodies in both the delivery and synthesis of potentially significant life building compounds on early Earth.