A Glasgow-based scientist may have solved the mystery of the discovery of a pristine Martian meteorite after discovering it contained a toxin that makes pigs vomit.
The Lafayette meteorite had been stored in the geological collection at Purdue University in Indiana since early 1929, however, no one knew how the rock got there, the BBC reported.
Some reports suggest the meteorite was donated to the university by an African-American student after it landed in a pond where he was fishing.
Dr Aine O’Brien, an environmental and planetary organic geochemist at the University of Glasgow, began studying a small piece of the meteorite two years ago.
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“It’s a meteorite from Mars and those are really rare,” O’Brien told the BBC.
“That alone makes it really valuable and all of those Mars meteorites aren’t in as perfect a state as Lafayette.”
“It must have been picked up soon after it fell, otherwise the outer edge would have disappeared.”
O’Brien analyzed the chemical compounds the meteorite was made up of and discovered that one of them – a vomitoxin called deoxynivalenol – was found in a fungus that can grow on crops and make humans and pigs sick, according to an article co-written by the scientist.
Pigs are particularly affected by the toxin, which makes them vomit.
She then contacted researchers and librarians at Purdue University to investigate how the fungus had affected crops in Indiana. This was found to have led to reduced crop yields in 1919 and 1927, around the same time the Lafayette meteorite was believed to have been discovered, according to the University of Glasgow.
Crop dust may have carried the toxin into waterways, the researchers speculated. If so, the meteorite would have been contaminated with the toxin when it landed in the pond.
They also scoured historical records of fireball sightings and discovered that some occurred in 1919 and 1927. Meteorites leave a trail of fire in the sky when they enter the Earth’s atmosphere due to their extreme heat.
Purdue University archivists then scoured records to find black students attending the university in 1919 and 1927, Glasgow University reported. Julius Lee Morgan, Clinton Edward Shaw, and Hermanze Edwin Fauntleroy were all studying at the university in 1919, and another student, Clyde Silance, was there in 1927.
Based on the evidence collected by O’Brien and the team, any of these students could have discovered the Lafayette meteorite.
“Lafayette is a truly magnificent meteorite sample that has taught us a lot about Mars through previous research,” O’Brien told the BBC.
“So just for that they deserve the credit, don’t they? Then you add the fact that it was an African-American student at a university that had so few. We all know the Stories of Racism in 1920s America.”
Although O’Brien may not be able to pinpoint exactly who found the Martian meteorite, she told the BBC she was happy to shed some light on the story.
“The only reason we were able to reduce it was because the university had so few black students and it’s Black History Month,” she said.
“And it’s kind of a dark story, I didn’t want to shy away from the fact that it’s a big part of the story.”
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