Organic materials isolated from carbonaceous meteorites provide us with a record of pre-biotic chemistry in the early Solar System. Molecular, isotopic and in situ studies of these materials suggest that a number of extraterrestrial environments have contributed to the inventory of organic matter in the early Solar System including interstellar space, the Solar nebula and meteorite parent bodies.
There are several difficulties that have to be overcome in the study of the organic constituents of meteorites. Contamination by terrestrial biogenic organic matter is an ever-present concern and a wide variety of contaminant molecules have been isolated and identified including essential plant oils, derived from either biological sources or common cleaning products, and aliphatic hydrocarbons, most probably derived from petroleum-derived pollutants. Only 25% of the organic matter in carbonaceous chondrites is amenable to extraction with organic solvents; the remainder is present as a complex macromolecular aromatic network that has required the development of analytical approaches that can yield structural and isotopic information on this highly complex material.
Stable isotopic studies have been of paramount importance in understanding the origins of meteoritic organic matter and have provided evidence for the incorporation of interstellar molecules within meteoritic material. Extending isotopic studies to the molecular level is yielding new insights into both the sources of meteoritic organic matter and the processes that have modified it.
Organic matter in meteorites is intimately associated with silicate minerals and the in situ examination of the relationships between organic and inorganic components is crucial to our understanding of the role of asteroidal processes in the modification of organic matter and, in particular, the role of water as both a solvent and a reactant on meteorite parent bodies.