Asteroids – rocky objects near the Earth orbiting the sun – are the upper bodies of most meteorites. And the theory suggests that chemical reactions within asteroids can create some of the vital elements.
The researchers found sugars like arabinos and xylose – but the most important finding was ribose.
Ribose plays an extremely important role in our human biology. It is found in our RNA molecules (ribonucleic acid) and delivers messages from our DNA to help build proteins for our bodies, according to the press release.
"It is remarkable that such a fragile molecule as ribose could be detected in such ancient material," Jason Dworkin of NASA, a co-author of the study, said in the press release.
The discovery of ribose also suggests that RNA was developed before DNA, giving researchers a clearer picture of how life may have been formed.
DNA has long been considered the "template for life" – but RNA molecules have more capabilities, such as replicating without the help of other molecules, according to the press release. These additional capabilities, combined with the fact that scientists have not yet found sugar in DNA in meteorites, supports the theory that "RNA coordinated the machinery of life before DNA."
"The research provides the first direct evidence of ribos in space and the delivery of sugar to the earth," said Yoshihiro Furukawa of Japan's Tohoku University, lead author of the study, in the press release. "The extraterrestrial sugar may have contributed to the formation of RNA on the prebiotic soil that possibly led to the origin of life."
Of course, there is the possibility that the meteorites were polluted by life on Earth – but tests showed evidence that this is unlikely, and that sugar probably came from space.
Now scientists will continue to analyze the meteorites to see how abundant these sugars are and how they may have affected life on Earth.