Detection of a toxin that makes humans and pigs vomit could solve the lingering 100-year-old mystery surrounding the pristine Martian meteorite nicknamed “Lafayette”.
Lafayette was blown from the surface of March millions of years ago and eventually found its way to Purdue University in Indiana. In 1931 the unusual smooth black stone was identified as a virgin stone meteorite. Yet how Purdue University came to possess the stone and who delivered it to the university has been unknown for 90 years. Now scientists analyzing the meteorite say a strange compound in it could be the clue cracking the casing.
A potential find story for the Lafayette space rock was reported by meteorite collector Harvey Nininger in 1935. He said a student at Black Purdue saw the meteorite land in a pond while fishing, retrieved the rock and gave it to the university.
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However, evidence supporting this story was scanty. Thus, in 2019, a team of researchers led by Áine O’Brien, a planetary scientist at the University of Glasgow in Scotland, set out to solve this mystery.
“Lafayette is a truly magnificent meteorite sample, which has taught us a lot about Mars through previous research,” O’Brien said in a statement. “Part of what made it so valuable is that it is remarkably well preserved, meaning it had to be recovered quickly after landing.”
O’Brien noted that when meteorites are left in the elements for significant durations, their outer layers weather and they pick up terrestrial contaminants, reducing their research value.
“The unusual combination of Lafayette’s quick protection from the elements and the tiny trace of contamination he picked up during his brief stint in the mud is what made this work possible,” she said.
A disgusting clue
The team began their research by crushing a tiny sample of the meteorite and analyzing it with a spectrometer, an instrument that looks for the unique chemical “fingerprints” of elements and compounds.
O’Brien was looking for organic molecules that might indicate life once existed on Mars, but what the planetary scientist found was distinctly terrestrial in nature. Among thousands of compounds, the scientist found deoxynivalenol (DON), a toxin found in a fungus that grows on crops like corn, wheat and oats. When ingested, DON causes disease in humans and animals, especially pigs.
O’Brien mentioned the detection of DON to a colleague familiar with the story of Lafayette’s discovery, who noted that DON could have found its way to the meteorite via dust from crops that ended up in the yards of the meteorite. water around where the rock made its muddy splash in Tippecanoe County, Indiana.
The team contacted researchers from the departments of Agronomy and Botany at Purdue University, who set out to determine the prevalence of the DON-carrying fungus in the area before 1931, when the origins of the meteorite were determined.
The survey found that the fungus was most prevalent in 1919, when it caused a 10-15% drop in crop yield, with a smaller drop in crop yield in 1929. While the fungus was more widespread, there was a higher likelihood that it would be transported beyond farmland, carrying the DON toxin with it.
The researchers also worked to determine when Lafayette may have arrived on Earthconsulting accounts of regional fireballs, streaks of light caused when meteorites heat up as they pass through earth’s atmosphere.
Two particular sightings of fireballs stood out, both over southern Michigan and northern Indiana: one on November 26, 1919, and another in 1927 that deposited the Tilden meteorite in Illinois, the largest space rock to hit the state in recorded history.
With those dates in hand, archivists at Purdue University set about searching the institution’s records for black students present at those times. They identified Julius Lee Morgan and Clinton Edward Shaw, Class of 1921, and Hermanze Edwin Fauntleroy, Class of 1922, all of whom were enrolled at Purdue in 1919. A fourth student, Clyde Silance, studied at Purdue in 1927 .
The researchers concluded that, based on Niniger’s account of the Lafayette meteorite arriving at Purdue, one of these four students likely gifted the Martian meteorite to the university. The team hopes further research could identify which student found Lafayette so he can receive the credit he so rightly deserves.
“I am proud that a century after it reached Earth, we are finally able to piece together the circumstances of its landing and come closer than ever to giving credit to the black student who put it there. found,” O’Brien said of the meteorite. “I’m very happy that one of them was able to be there to see the Lafayette land and donate it to Purdue University.”
The team’s research is described in a paper published October 19 in the journal Astrobiology.
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