Open Access Honors Program Thesis

First Advisor

Josh Sebree


In 1952 Stanley Miller and Harold Urey conducted an experiment that would simulate the conditions of early earth (Miller, 1953). The purpose was to observe the chemical origins of life, and the conclusion supported an earlier theory that such conditions favor the synthesis of more complex organic compounds from simpler inorganic molecules. The research conducted in Dr. Sebree’s lab is an extension of these early findings. It is believed that early Earth was composed mostly of nitrogen, carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide and methane as opposed to our atmosphere of nitrogen and oxygen today.

Saturn’s largest moon, Titan, has qualities relatively comparable to those of Earth. It is the only body in our solar system, besides Earth, that displays clear evidence of surface liquid. Titan also is unique due to its dense atmosphere. Titan’s atmosphere is largely composed of nitrogen, like Earth, with methane and other minor components leading to the formation of organic hazes. Where Earth has water cycles, Titan has similar methane cycles. In fact, it is believed that Titan’s atmospheric behavior is similar to that of early Earth (Cable, 2011).

Titan’s atmosphere can only provide oxygen through carbon monoxide in relatively small quantities, contrary to the abundant amounts of molecular oxygen on Earth. Through new studies it has been shown that biological molecules can possibly form from Titan’s trace oxygen present (Horst, 2012). If biological molecules, such as amino acids, can be photochemically synthesized in laboratory settings from carbon monoxide and other components of Titan’s atmosphere, this may open up a new understanding of the earliest earth.

However there is not a lot of recent research being done in this area, except for what we are doing currently. Hence, there is a smaller selection of related pieces of literature out there that would aid in our research. In a way, the research that is being conducted is filling a void for this field of study. In fact many of the the projects taking place in the lab are going on to be published, because of the new information that they are providing. One major driving force for this research is to provide the scientific community with the data that this study is able to collect in the lab, because there is not a lot of similar work being done elsewhere.

This research project will modify concepts developed during my previous research with Dr. Sebree to study the sources of oxygen on Titan that could possibly produce aerosols in our lab. For the majority of this work, the sources of oxygen will be carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, and molecular oxygen. These components will be individually combined with methane in order to form products. The goal of this research project is to observe glyoxylic acid and glycolic acid derivatives, which will be done by manipulating the methane/oxygen ratios. A lot of this research will be conducted using the GM/MS instrument in the biochemistry department. The results of this research project will include diagrams and tables showing the various compounds discovered in the aerosol product, as well as comparison of the oxygen reactants tested throughout the proposed method.

Date of Award



Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry

University Honors Designation

A thesis submitted in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the designation University Honors

Date Original


Object Description

1 PDF file (25 pages)



File Format