The laser spark of life recognized by the Czech Science Foundation

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Humans in every civilisation have always been intrigued by the question of the origin of life. During thousands of years, numerous answers have been provided by mystics and clerics. Then, philosophers offered their own speculative solutions of this conundrum. Science entered the field not long ago. Systematic investigations of physical and chemical phenomena, which likely played a role in the origin of life, began in the middle of the last century. Currently, it represents a strong research stream wherein also our Institute participates.

On Wednesday, 23rd September 2020, the president of the Czech Science Foundation (GACR) awarded the GACR prize to the project entitled “Origins of Life on the Earth and in the Universe - Experiments and Theory“. The proposer of the project was Judit E. Sponer (Institute of Biophysics of the Czech Academy of Sciences) and its co-proposers were Libor Juha (Institute of Physics of the Czech Academy of Sciences) and Martin Ferus (J. Heyrovsky Institute of Physical Chemistry of the Czech Academy of Sciences). As seen from the project title, the subject was a study of complex and little known processes taking place on the early Earth and also at more distant places in the Universe, which might have led to a formation of more complex organic molecules starting from small molecules and so create the fundamental building blocks of the living matter and/or of their precursors.

In the laboratory part of the project well-known and proven methods were applied (e.g. conventional heating of reaction mixtures, initiation of reactions by a low-temperature plasma of electrical discharges of various type or by a UV radiation from external sources), together with the unique technique of large laser spark generated by the high-power iodine photodissociation laser PALS (Prague Asterix Laser System) operated jointly by the Institute of Physics and by the Institute of Plasma Physics (both Institutes are belonging to the Czech Academy of Sciences) in the PALS Research Center. This way of investigation leads to a reaction regime, which under controlled conditions initiates chemical reactions of the kind [1], which were then supposed to occur in a close vicinity of high-energy-density events like lightning strikes and/or asteroid, cometary and meteorite impacts.

The arrangement of a typical laser-plasma-chemical experiment performed at the PALS facility. Photographed by Jiří Skála; credit: Institute of Physics of the Czech Academy of Sciences.
The arrangement of a typical laser-plasma-chemical experiment performed at the PALS facility. Photographed by Jiří Skála; credit: Institute of Physics of the Czech Academy of Sciences.

„The advantage of highly energetic laser pulses consists in the fact that a single pulse can cause observable chemical changes in systems relevant from the point of view of astrobiology. In this way we mimic the real conditions in the nature. A lighting or an asteroid does not strike the same point million times, but just once“, comments Libor Juha the unique experimental possibilities offered by the high-power laser system PALS.

On a strong side of the project, which was no doubt appreciated by the Czech Science Foundation, was the synergy over a wide range of research fields, both in physics and chemistry and their interdisciplinary overlap, e.g., theoretical and computational chemistry, thermochemistry, homogeneous and heterogeneous catalysis, biochemistry, bioorganic chemistry, cosmochemistry, astrobiology, geochemistry, planetology, photophysics and spectrochemistry, high-energy-density physics and high-energy chemistry (i.e., photochemistry, radiation chemistry, laser and discharge based plasma chemistry and chemical action of shock-waves). Further information on the achieved results would be available from the selected publications [2-6].

1. L. Juha, S. Civiš: Laser-plasma chemistry: Chemical reactions initiated by laser-produced plasmas, In: Lasers in Chemistry (Ed. M. Lackner), Vol. 2, Wiley-VCH, Weinheim 2008, p. 899-921 

2. E. Mohammadi, L. Petera, H. Saeidfirozeh, A. Knizek, P. Kubelik, R. Dudzak, M. Krus, L. Juha, S. Civis, R. Coulon, O. Malina, J. Ugolotti, V. Ranc, M. Otyepka, J. Sponer, M. Ferus, J. E. Sponer: Formic acid, a ubiquitous but overlooked component of the early Earth atmosphere, Chem. Eur. J. 26, 12075 (2020).

3. M. Ferus, F. Pietrucci, A. M. Saitta, O. Ivanek, A. Knizek, P. Kubelík, M. Krus, L. Juha, R. Dudzak, J. Dostál, A. Pastorek, L. Petera, J. Hrncirova , H. Saeidfirozeh, V. Shestivská, J. Sponer, J. E. Sponer, P. Rimmer, S. Civis, G. Cassone: Prebiotic synthesis initiated in formaldehyde by laser plasma simulating high-velocity impacts, Astron. Astrophys. 626, A52 (2019).

4. J. E. Sponer, J. Sponer, E. Di Mauro: Structural and energetic compatibility: the driving principles of molecular evolution, Astrobiology19, 1117 (2019).

5. A. Pastorek, J. Hrncirova, L. Jankovic, L. Nejdl, S. Civis, O. Ivanek, V. Shestivska, A. Knizek, P. Kubelik, J. Sponer, L. Petera, A. Krivkova, G. Cassone, M. Vaculovicova, J. E.  Sponer, M. Ferus: Prebiotic synthesis at impact craters: the role of Fe-clays and iron meteorites, Chem. Commun. 55, 10563 (2019).

6. M. Ferus, F. Pietrucci, A. M. Saitta, A. Knizek, P. Kubelik, O. Ivanek, V. Shestivska, S. Civis:  Formation of nucleobases in a Miller-Urey reducing atmosphere, Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA 114, 4306 (2017).


For more information on the laser-plasma-chemical experiments carried out at the PALS facility, please, feel free to contact Libor Juha: e-mail: juha [at] fzu [dot] cz, phone: +420 266052741