The clay mineral montmorillonite is a member of the phyllosilicate group of minerals, which has been detected on martian soil. Montmorillonite catalyzes the condensation of activated monomers to form RNA-like oligomers. Extent of catalysis, that is, the yield of oligomers, and the length of the longest oligomer formed in these reactions widely varies with the source of montmorillonite (i.e., the locality where the mineral is mined). This study was undertaken to establish whether there exists a correlation between the extent of catalytic property and the charge density of montmorillonites. Charge density was determined by saturating the montmorillonites with alkyl ammonium cations that contained increasing lengths of alkyl chains, [CH3-(CH2)n-NH3]+, where n = 3–16 and 18, and then measuring d(001), interlayer spacing of the resulting montmorillonite-alkyl ammonium-montmorillonite complex by X-ray diffractometry (XRD).
Results demonstrate that catalytic activity of montmorillonites with lower charge density is superior to that of higher charge density montmorillonite. They produce longer oligomers that contain 9 to 10 monomer units, while montmorillonite with high charge density catalyzes the formation of oligomers that contain only 4 monomer units.
The charge density of montmorillonites can also be calculated from the chemical composition if elemental analysis data of the pure mineral are available. In the next mission to Mars, CheMin (Chemistry and Mineralogy), a combined X-ray diffraction/X-ray fluorescence instrument, will provide information on the mineralogical and elemental analysis of the samples. Possible significance of these results for planning the future missions to Mars for the search of organic compounds and extinct or extant life is discussed. Key Words: Mars—Origin of life—Montmorillonite—Mineral catalysis—Layer charge density—X–ray diffractometry. Astrobiology 10, 743–749.