A Glasgow-based scientific investigator may have helped solve a century-long mystery surrounding the discovery of a Martian meteorite thanks to a toxin that makes pigs vomit.
The Lafayette meteorite was found in the drawer of the biology department of an American university in 1929 but no one at Indiana’s Purdue University remembered where it came from.
One theory suggested it was given to them by a “black student” who saw him land in a pond while he was fishing.
Dr Aine O’Brien, an environmental and planetary organic geochemist at the University of Glasgow, began her investigative work two years ago and has now shed light on who the black student may have been and when it was delivered.
His work began when his team received a small fraction of the meteorite from the Natural History Museum in London.
“It’s a meteor from Mars and these are really rare,” said Dr. O’Brien.
“That alone makes it really valuable and not all of those Mars meteorites are in pristine condition like Lafayette.
“It must have been picked up very soon after the fall, otherwise the outer edge would have been ruined.”
Its pristine conditions make it perfect for research.
Dr. O’Brien shattered 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 conserved 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,” said Dr. O’Brien.
“It was the end of March 2020, so I had nothing better to do than scroll through the list.
“Most of them had really long and boring chemistry data type names, but one was called vomitoxin and I thought it sounded interesting, so I started looking into it.”
He found that vomitoxin, deoxynivalenol (DON), was found in a fungus that contaminates wheat crops such as corn, wheat and oats.
It causes disease in humans and animals if ingested, with pigs being particularly affected.
Dr. O’Brien mentioned vomitoxin to her supervisor, who told her the origins of Lafayette’s discovery were unknown and suggested that the fungus could affect crops in Indiana.
“This started this kind of huge 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 sent her a message on Twitter and we, along with the university librarian, started doing some detective work.”
They turned to researchers at the university’s departments of agronomy and botany and plant pathology to learn more about the fungus’s historical prevalence in Tippecanoe County in Indiana, where Purdue is located.
Their records showed it caused a sharp drop in crop yield in 1919 and another less pronounced drop in 1927 – the mushroom’s highest prevalence in the 20 years before 1931, when Lafayette was actually identified as a meteorite.
His team suggested that dust from affected crops may have carried DON into surrounding waterways and Lafayette may have been contaminated if, as history suggests, she fell into a pond.
Analysis of fireball sightings was also used to determine Lafayette’s landing. Meteorites heat up as they descend through Earth’s atmosphere, causing a brilliant streak of fire across the sky.
There were reported sightings of fireballs in southern Michigan and northern Indiana in 1919 and one in 1927.
Purdue University archivists then scanned the yearbooks to find black students enrolled at the time.
Three students – Julius Lee Morgan, Clinton Edward Shaw, and Hermanze Edwin Fauntleroy – were enrolled at Purdue in 1919. A fourth – Clyde Silance – was studying there in 1927.
Researchers believe one of these students may have found Lafayette as suggested by the earlier origin story.
“Lafayette is a truly beautiful meteorite sample that has taught us a lot about Mars through previous research,” said Dr. O’Brien.
“So for that alone, they deserve credit, right? Then add the fact that they were an African American student at a university that had so few. We all know the stories of racism in 1920s America.”
Dr. O’Brien admits that we may never know exactly which student discovered the meteorite, but she’s happy that 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 this is kind of a black story, I didn’t want to shy away from the fact that this is an important part of the story.”