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Chemistry In Pictures

Chemistry in Pictures: Crystal clear

by Alexandra Taylor
January 22, 2019

A photo of large and small crystals taken through a microscrope.
Credit: Cesar Menor Salvan

The chemist who made these crystals thinks they could hold clues to how life evolved on Earth. Cesar Menor Salvan, a research scientist at the Center for Chemical Evolution at Georgia Institute of Technology, photographed the crystals through a microscope with a field of view of 1 cm. To make them, Menor Salvan formed synthetic struvite (magnesium ammonium phosphate) in a solution of urea and magnesium with the addition of a small amount of phosphoric acid. After the struvite crystallized, the pH of the solution dropped, allowing a second generation of small newberyite crystals to form. This process, Menor Salvan explains, could be relevant for understanding how the first nucleotides developed. Nucleotides are the building blocks of DNA. For a long time, Menor Salvan says, chemists thought struvite only formed through biological processes. “We demonstrated that these magnesium phosphates could be formed abiotically and that these minerals could have been part of the inventory of prebiotic chemistry,” he says.

Submitted by Cesar Menor Salvan

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