FURSCA Profile — Sophomore searches for origin of life

Not every student working on a FURSCA project is researching an original topic. Some, like Erica Bennett, Rockford sophomore, are assisting professors on their research. Bennett spent the summer working with Dr. Zellner and Dr. McCaffrey’s research to show that two molecules could be part the origin of life. Here she talks with The Pleiad about her role in the project, which she still assisting with.

So how did you get involved with Dr. Zellner and Dr. McCaffrey’s project?

Dr. Zellner and Dr. McCaffrey had sent in a NASA proposal in the Fall of my freshman year. I had Dr. Zellner for an honors class and she mentioned it in class. I told her after class that I was really interested in doing research with her if she wanted or needed help. And then I had McCaffrey for CHEM 123 lab in the Spring and she came up to me one day and asked me if I still wanted to do research and I was like, “Yeah.”

So what is their project?

We’re looking at two molecules to recreate an impact event, which is just high pressure and high temperature. So we want to use the flat plate accelerator at the Jet Propulsion lab at Johnson Space Center. What that’ll do is take a capsule of our compound and shoot it through this gun really fast and it’ll hit a target and hopefully change into a molecule or another compound. If it turns into a compound, it shows that under impact conditions, these molecules could have changed into the backbone of RNA and therefore could have been part of the origin of life.

And what was your part in all of this?

My research this summer was to simply look at the molecules on the Gas Chromatography-Mass Spectrometer (GC-MS). No one had really looked at these two compounds before on a GC-MS or very intently, so that was my job – to find their molar mass, how they react in different solvents, how they look on the GC-MS, what’s their minimum concentration. None of us knew what to expect, and I had never taken Organic Chemistry before, so I even more didn’t know what to expect because I never really learned about these compounds before.

What does the GC-MS tell you?

So the way it works, there’s these little vials that you put a dissolved sample into. It takes a little sample – all of its electronic, so you put everything into the computer and it just goes – and it pulls out the sample and it puts it into the instrument. It injects it in, like a needle. And then it vaporizes the molecule into the gas phase and shoots electrons at it to make positive particles of the samples. Then there’s a detector that detects all the positive samples. But when it ionizes it, so when it takes an electron away from it, the molecule breaks into parts. We can look at those on a computer, it has peaks of them with their relative intensities of how many fragments we got at that peak. Each compound molecule has its own gas chromatography (GC). There’s a peak at the very end which is its molecule weight and each of the fragments is the weight of the compound that broke off at that time. So that’s what we look at, then looking at where they fragment, figuring out the fingerprint of the compound.

So what did you find out?

What we learned over the summer is that these compounds break down really fast in water.  And water is something that these compounds lose. I did a really basic mortar and pestle experiment – put some compound in it, grind it for like fifteen minutes. And it was losing water, because it was sticking to the sides, so I could tell that it was changing – which is good in a molecular reaction, you want that. But I couldn’t tell why it was happening because I couldn’t really look at it. But they lose water, which means that if, in an impact condition they lose water and break down, we might not get all the stuff that’s in it because it’s breaking down so fast. So what we’re doing is taking silylating compounds, which are big molecules which basically take off the OH group on the molecules and adds the silylo group, so that it’s harder to break down and won’t break down in water. But the problem I’m having with that is that I have to find the correct percent of solvents to dissolve in. One compound doesn’t do what you expect, which is really frustrating because we don’t know why it doesn’t do what we expect. So that’s what I’m doing now when I go to the lab, silylating that compound. The other compound is good, it silylates almost completely.

So, going forward, what will happen next?

We were hoping to do a shot before Christmastime because we wanted to actually see what would happen, you know just really nervous and anxious and see it get done. But it probably won’t happen because silylating is taking over everything.

*Per request of Nicolle Zellner, specific names have been removed as the research has not been published as of yet.

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