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  1. 1. news and viewsOrigins of life boundary layer in Stevns Klint, Denmark, were not terrestrial contaminants. The sameA left-handed Solar System? criterion was recently applied by Cronin and Pizzarello10 to the Murchison meteorite.Christopher F. Chyba These authors discovered enantiomeric excesses of up to 9% in apparently non-bio- ow and why did life on Earth come to This controversy led Pillinger6 to empha- logical amino acids. So it appears that twoH use almost exclusively laevorotatory, or left-handed amino acids (L-enan-tiomers), rather than their mirror-image size the need for a criterion independent of enantiomeric excess to judge the authenticity of meteoritic amino acids. He suggested very different approaches in two laboratories confirm enantiomeric excesses in the Murchison meteorite.dextrorotatory, or right-handed forms (D- determining the isotopic composition of indi- The same isotope ratios that distinguishenantiomers)? The paper by Engel and vidual enantiomers, because terrestrial stable Murchison amino acids from their terrestrialMacko on page 265 of this issue1 re-examines isotope ratios differ from those in meteorites. counterparts imply that these molecules orthe Murchison meteorite, and reinforces the Engel and Macko1 appear to have their chemical precursors originated insurprising result that some process favour- achieved this. These authors had previously7 interstellar clouds1,8. Why should chemistrying L-enantiomers seems to have operated used the carbon isotope ratio 13C/12C of ala- in such a cloud have a bias towards one-before the origin of life on Earth, and proba- nine in Murchison to argue for an excess of handedness? One possibility10 is that anbly before the formation of the Solar System. L-alanine over D-alanine, but reservations enantiomeric preference may have beenIf this is correct, our Solar System may have about these measurements persisted8. In imposed on the cloud out of which our Solarformed with a built-in bias for left-handed their present letter1, they instead examine the System formed by circularly polarized light, 15amino acids. N/14N ratio of individual Murchison perhaps synchrotron radiation from a An excess of L-enantiomers is an intrigu- amino-acid enantiomers. They find L-enan- neutron star11. If a substantial fraction of theing result, as it suggests that the handedness, tiomer excesses in the amino acids alanine organic inventory of early Earth was thenor chirality, of terrestrial biology might have and glutamic acid — both protein amino derived from comets and asteroids12, thean extraterrestrial cause. But an L-excess acids — of over 30% and 50%, respectively, synchrotron-radiation hypothesis wouldindigenous to the meteorite is difficult to with 15N/14N ratios that are too high to connect terrestrial biochemistry with theprove, as it may instead be due to contamina- include much terrestrial material. The con- extreme physics of collapsed stars.tion by the terrestrial biosphere of an origi- tradiction between this and an earlier If the excess was indeed established bynally racemic mixture. (In a racemic mix- report2 that alanine and glutamic acid have some process specific to the molecular cloudture, L- and D-enantiomers are present in L-enantiomer excesses of about 0 and 10%, out of which our Solar System formed, simi-equal abundance, as in typical laboratory respectively, suggests that the Murchison lar enantiomeric excesses should be found inchemical syntheses of amino acids.) meteorite is very heterogeneous. other organic-rich meteorites and in comets. When amino acids were first discovered Another way to establish an extraterres- Examination of other carbonaceous chon-in the Murchison meteorite2, apparent trial origin is to use amino acids that are drites could therefore test this hypothesis.excesses of L-enantiomers ranging from 0 to extremely rare in the terrestrial biosphere. Unless there is a more widespread process20% were found. However, the conservative This was used by Zhao and Bada9 to argue operating, other solar systems could haveinterpretation of these results was that cont- that two amino acids found above and below been formed with a preference for D-aminoamination was to blame, especially as non- the 65-million-year-old Cretaceous/Tertiary acids, or with no preference at all — withprotein amino acids were reported to show H Hno enantiomeric excess3. (‘Protein’ amino Figure 1 Left- and right-handedacids are of the type used by terrestrial life in H2N CH3 H3C NH2 versions of the amino acid alanine.proteins, and are therefore the most likely to C C A meteoritic excess of L-alaninesuffer from biological contamination.) A has now been shown not to belater study4, claiming indigenous enan- from terrestrial contamination, so COOH HOOCtiomeric excesses in Murchison of up to 70%, life’s chemical left-handednesswas criticized on similar grounds5. L-alanine D-alanine may be extraterrestrial. Avoided objects Freudian abstracts Dust and fibres from Freud’s couch234 Nature © Macmillan Publishers Ltd 1997 NATURE | VOL 389 | 18 SEPTEMBER 1997
  2. 2. news and viewspossible consequences for life in those sys- trial life in the Solar System might be to detectors respond to more distant objects.tems. Alternatively, if the enantiomeric search for enantiomeric excesses. Mounting This is a position-disparity mechanism. Dis-excess somehow arose during chemical evo- evidence for (evidently non-biological) parities may also be detected by differenceslution within Murchison itself, no correla- enantiomeric excesses in the Murchison in the distribution of excitatory andtion between meteorites is demanded. meteorite means that this criterion alone inhibitory regions within two receptive Although these enantiomeric excesses may be less useful than we had hoped — fields that do not differ in position. This is asuggest a link between extraterrestrial organ- whether within martian meteorites, on the phase-disparity mechanism.ic molecules and the origin of terrestrial life, martian surface, or elsewhere. A simple disparity detector that receivesthe connection is by no means certain. A Christopher F. Chyba is in the Department of direct inputs from the two eyes does not pro-preference may have arisen during prebiotic Planetary Sciences, University of Arizona, Tucson, duce a pure disparity signal — one that isor biotic evolution as well. For example, con- Arizona 85721, USA. not influenced by incidental changes in thesider peptide nucleic acid (PNA), a candidate 1. Engel, M. H. & Macko, S. A. Nature 389, 265–268 stimulus. For example, the signal for blackDNA precursor molecule. It has been shown (1997). bars is not the same as that for white bars, and 2. Kvenvolden, K. et al. Nature 228, 923–926 (1970).that an otherwise achiral PNA strand can 3. Kvenvolden, K. A., Lawless, J. G. & Ponamperuma, C. Proc. Natl simple detectors are sensitive to slighthave its chirality fixed by the presence of an L- Acad. Sci. USA 68, 486–490 (1971). changes in the location of the object7. In theor D-lysine residue attached to its end13. One 4. Engel, M. H. & Nagy, B. Nature 296, 837–840 (1982). cat, more robust disparity signals are pro-can imagine a picture in which this random 5. Bada, J. L. et al. Nature 301, 494–497 (1983). duced by so-called complex cells at a later 6. Pillinger, C. T. Nature 296, 802 (1982).‘seeding’ of chirality led to a chiral preference 7. Engel, M. H., Macko, S. A. & Silfer, J. A. Nature 348, 47–49 stage of processing. But, even for some com-in either prebiotic chemistry or early life14. So (1990). plex detectors, the sign of the disparity signaleven if the Solar System was born with a pref- 8. Cronin, J. R. & Chang, S. in The Chemistry of Life’s Origins (eds is inverted when the contrast sign is reversederence for L-amino acids, there may have Greenberg, J. et al.) 209–258 (Kluwer, Amsterdam, 1993). such that white regions in one eye are super- 9. Zhao, M. & Bada, J. L. Nature 339, 463–465 (1989).been other opportunities for chiral choices 10. Cronin, J. R. & Pizzarello, S. Science 275, 951–965 (1997). imposed on black regions in the other8.to be made, and our understanding is far too 11. Bonner, W. A. Origins of Life 21, 59–111 (1991). Cumming and Parker3 now report thatlimited to know whether these subsequent 12. Chyba, C. F. & Sagan, C. in Comets and the Origin and Evolution most binocular cells in V1 of the monkeychoices might have dominated any initial of Life (eds Thomas, P. J., Chyba, C. F. & McKay, C. P.) 147–173 produce a normal disparity signal to images (Springer, New York, 1997).enantiomeric bias. 13. Wittung, P. et al. Nature 368, 561–563 (1994). with the same sign of contrast, but an invert- Finally, Lederberg15 suggested in 1965 14. Cohen, J. Science 267, 1265–1266 (1995). ed signal to reversed-contrast images. Visu-that one criterion for detecting extraterres- 15. Lederberg, J. Nature 207, 9–13 (1965). ally, images with reversed contrast evoke rivalry, but they do not create an impressionBinocular vision of depth (see Fig. 1 on page 281). These results are important because they show thatSeeing in reverse disparity detectors in V1 of the primate respond to a type of disparity that is not usedIan P. Howard directly for depth perception. Furthermore, they indicate that (contrary to the generally t is remarkable that we perceive a three- rather than fuse. When similar images fall on held view), cells in V1 cannot detect whenI dimensional world using two-dimensional images. Artists discovered that depth per-ception arises from perspective, shading and slightly different retinal regions, we see one object standing out in depth (Fig. 1). This is the magic of stereoscopic vision. The sim- images are in register — this function pre- sumably occurs in a higher visual centre. What are these inverted-disparity signalsocclusion of distant objects by closer ones. Yet plest idea is that optic-nerve fibres serving used for? Two or more simple detectorsit was not until Wheatstone invented the slightly different regions (receptive fields) in could feed into a complex detector whichstereoscope, in 1838, that it was realized that each of the two retinas converge onto the accepts only same-contrast signals. Otherdifferences in the positions of images in our same binocular cell. Such a cell is a ‘disparity complex cells could use reversed-contrasttwo eyes —binocular disparities — also create detector’, because it responds best when the signals to evoke rivalry and help to indicateimpressions of depth1. (One of Wheatstone’s images in the two eyes have a disparity that whether complex images in the two eyes arestereograms is shown in Fig. 1.) matches the difference in the positions of the in proper register (that is, whether they have Recently, people have become fascinated two receptive fields6. Different disparity a maximum proportion of same-contrastby autostereograms, in which a three- detectors respond to different signs and edges). But periodic stimuli, even when indimensional scene emerges when the eyes magnitudes of disparity. Zero-disparity register, can contain regions of opposite con-misconverge on an apparently random array detectors respond to objects in the plane of trast. Under these circumstances, complexof dots. We now have stereoscopic virtual fixation, crossed-disparity detectors react to cells that accept opposite-contrast stimulireality and stereoscopic ‘vision’ in robots. nearer objects, and uncrossed-disparity could use them to improve their response8.But what are the brain mechanisms that are When we look at a nearby object ourinvolved in stereopsis (binocular vision)2? eyes converge, and when we look at a farAn advance in our understanding of these object our eyes diverge. These eye move-mechanisms comes from results by Cum- ments bring the images of the object ofming and Parker3 and by Masson et al.4, on interest, as far as possible, onto corre-pages 280 and 283, respectively, of this issue. sponding points, and simplify the task of When we look at a small object, the detecting disparities due to relative depth.images of it fall on corresponding points in Figure 1 One of the original stereograms Given that reversed-contrast images pro-the two retinas. Neural signals from these constructed by Wheatstone in 1838. When the duce inverted disparity signals, do they alsocorresponding points then converge on the displays are fused by convergence, the inner ring evoke reversed vergence?same ‘binocular cell’ in the primary visual appears nearer than the outer ring, because its To answer this question, Masson et al.4cortex (V1) of the brain5. As a result, the images have a crossed disparity. When the measured the vergence responses of monkeysimages fuse and we see one object. But if the displays are fused by divergence, the inner ring and humans to arrays of overlappingimages differ widely in shape, orientation or appears more distant, because its images have an reversed-contrast disks. Vergence occurred inluminance contrast, they rival one another uncrossed disparity. the opposite direction to that evoked by same-NATURE | VOL 389 | 18 SEPTEMBER 1997 Nature © Macmillan Publishers Ltd 1997 235