It has been suggested that amino acids and other organic compounds found in carbonaceous meteorites formed by aqueous alteration in the meteorite parent bodies1. Observations of carbonaceous material in interstellar grains and interplanetary dust particles2-4 indicate that condensed organic compounds may have been present in meteorite parent bodies at the time of aqueous alteration. One group of compounds thought to be representative of this carbonaceous material is the polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs)5. Recently it was proposed that PAHs condense on SiC grains in the molecular envelopes of carbon-rich red-giant stars6, which would allow for their subsequent incorporation into meteorite parent bodies during accretion. This incorporation mechanism is supported by the identification of SiC grains in carbonaceous chondrites7. The possibility therefore exists that PAHs, and/or other condensed organic compounds, represent the starting material for aqueous alteration which leads to the formation of amino acids and other water-soluble organic compounds. Here we present calculations of the distribution of aqueous organic compounds in metastable equilibrium with representative PAHs as functions of the fugacities of O2, CO2 and NH3. The results reported here for pyrene and fluoranthene, two PAHs with different structures but the same stoichiometry, differ greatly but indicate that the formation of amino and carboxylic acids is energetically favourable at probable parent-body alteration conditions. The actual reaction mechanisms involved could be revealed by consideration of isotope data for PAHs, amino acids, other organic compounds and carbonates in carbonaceous chondrites8,9.
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