SETI Institute Principal Investigator
Did all the essential ingredients of life come together on Earth, or did life get a jump-start by chemical processes in the interstellar environment? Were essential biomolecules formed in space and then incorporated into the early Earth through meteor impacts and comet collisions? In Andrew Mattioda’s view, if key organic molecules rained down on Earth, “then it means that the universe is primed for life and just needs a suitable environment to take root.”
Although carbon is one of the most abundant elements in the interstellar environment, not all of its forms are readily accessible to living systems. Mattioda studies a group of molecules – polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) – that provide a biologically accessible form of carbon. Indeed, some of the chemical processes essential to life as we know it rely on PAH-type molecules. As Mattioda sees it, “the distribution of PAHs in the universe becomes directly linked to the possible distribution of life in the universe.”
The distinctiveness of Mattioda’s research comes from two sources – people and chemicals. “I am privileged to work with a great group of interdisciplinary researchers,” he says. Chemists in the team, like Mattioda, analyze the chemical reactions and spectral characteristics of the compounds of interest, while physicists ensure that the laboratory conditions they use are close approximations of the space environment. Ultimately, these experimental results are compared with the observations of astronomers. “It takes the combined effort of these three fields to produce the results,” Mattioda explains.
Essential to Mattioda’s research is his access to some of the largest PAH molecules on the planet. “In some instances,” he says, “the purified samples that I have are the only ones in existence.”
- SETI Institute Explorer, Special Edition 2005