A Glasgow-based scientist may have helped solve a century-old mystery surrounding the discovery of a meteorite on Mars thanks to a toxin that makes pigs vomit.
The Lafayette meteorite was found in the drawer of an American university’s biology department in 1929, but no one at Purdue University in Indiana could remember where it came from.
One theory suggested they were given to them by a “black student” who saw it land in a lake while fishing.
Dr Aine O’Brien, an environmental and planetary organic geochemist at the University of Glasgow, began her detective work two years ago and has now shed some light on who the black student might have been and when he surrendered.
Her work began when her team received a small fraction of the meteorite from the Natural History Museum in London.
“It’s a meteorite from Mars and those are really rare,” Dr O’Brien said.
“That alone makes it really valuable, and not all of these meteorites from Mars are in as pristine a condition as Lafayette.
“It must have been picked up very soon after it fell because otherwise the outer edge would have come off.”
Its pristine condition makes it ideal for research.
Dr O’Brien crushed the tiny piece of Mars and used sophisticated mass spectrometry to find out what it was made of.
The purpose of the experiment was to look for preserved organic molecules—evidence that could help her learn more about the possibility of life on Mars.
“We ended up with a long list of hundreds of different chemical compounds,” Dr O’Brien said.
“It was late March 2020, so I had nothing better to do than scroll through the list.
“Most of them had really long, boring chemistry data type names, but one was called emethoxine and I thought it sounded cool and started looking it up.”
He discovered that the emetoxin, deoxynivalenol (DON), was found in a fungus that infects grain crops such as corn, wheat, and oats.
It causes disease in humans and animals when ingested, with pigs being particularly affected.
Dr. O’Brien reported the ametoxin to her supervisor, who told her that the origin of Lafayette’s discovery was unknown and suggested that the fungus might affect crops in Indiana.
“That started this huge kind of rabbit hole, because it turned out to be a huge thing over there,” he said.
“There was this assistant professor at Purdue University, Dr Marissa Tremblay, who I knew because she was in Glasgow.
“I messaged her on Twitter and we, along with the university librarian, started sleuthing.”
They reached out to researchers in the university’s departments of agronomy and botany and plant pathology to learn more about the historical prevalence of the fungus in Tippecanoe County, Indiana, where Purdue is located.
Their records showed that it caused a marked drop in crop yields in 1919 and another less pronounced drop in 1927—the highest prevalence of the fungus in the 20 years before 1931, when Lafayette was actually identified as a meteorite.
Her team suggested that dust from the affected crops may have carried the DON into surrounding waterways, and the Lafayette may have been contaminated with it if, as history suggests, it fell into a lake.
Analysis of fireball viewers was also used to determine Lafayette’s landing. Meteors heat up as they descend through the Earth’s atmosphere, causing a bright streak of fire in the sky.
Fireball sightings were reported in southern Michigan and northern Indiana in 1919 and one in 1927.
Archivists at Purdue University then combed through the yearbooks to find black students enrolled at the time.
Three students—Julius Lee Morgan, Clinton Edward Shaw, and Hermanze Edwin Fauntleroy—enrolled at Purdue in 1919. The fourth—Clyde Silance—was studying there in 1927.
Researchers believe that one of these students may have found Lafayette as the previous origin story indicated.
“Lafayette is a truly beautiful meteorite specimen that has taught us a lot about Mars through previous investigations,” said Dr O’Brien.
“So for that alone, do they deserve credit? Then you add the fact that he was an African-American student at a university that had so little. We all know the stories of racism in 1920s America.”
Dr O’Brien admits we may never know exactly which student discovered the meteorite, but she is glad she was able to shed some light on the story.
“The only reason we were able to narrow it down was because the university had so few black students and this is Black History Month,” he said.
“And that’s kind of a black story, I didn’t want to shy away from the fact that that’s a big part of the story.”
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