Widicus Weaver Lab finds new methods for prebiotic chemistry

By Tatum Lyles Flick
Marketing & Communications Manager

Over the past year, the Widicus Weaver group kept busy under the constraints of COVID-19, by finding new ways to approach research on prebiotic astrochemistry. The group focused on calculations, modeling, and computational work while evaluating the setup of their laboratory experiments.

One success from working outside of the lab was a paper co-authored by graduate students Hayley A. Bunn and Chase Schultz from the Widicus Weaver lab and a graduate student from the Bertram lab, Christopher Jernigan. Jernigan taught Bunn to use modeling software the Bertram lab uses for atmospheric chemistry, which led to collaborations and to identifying molecules that would have otherwise been missed as potential products in the experiment.

“We’re trying to make aminomethanol, the direct precursor to glycine in the
interstellar medium, but it’s so reactive we can’t keep it around long enough to collect a spectrum,” explained Prof. Susanna Widicus Weaver. “We may have made it in our mixture, but according to the models, it reacts away so fast we would never detect it. Now we have this piece of evidence that can guide us on what to try next.”

Prof. Susanna Widicus Weaver

The group now uses these models to study chemical systems to predict what might happen.

The lab is also working on a collaboration with a cometary chemist and an ice chemist with the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center. Most people study samples of simulated interstellar ice with mass spectrometry to determine what forms in the ice.

“We’re looking at what molecules are released from interstellar ice using rotational spectroscopy, just like you would do with a telescope,” Widicus Weaver said. “No one has ever done this experiment this way before.”

Graduate student Katarina Yocum published a proof of concept paper two years ago and recently a second paper with the first big set of results from this experiment.

“We like to tell people we make comets in the lab,” Widicus Weaver said. “It’s such a different way to think about that experiment and people are really excited about these results.”