Science sleuths uncover origin story of meteorite that makes pigs vomit

They believe it was spotted by a student as it descended on Earth and retrieved in a pond.
Loukia Papadopoulos
Scientists have struggled with meteorite Lafayette's origin story.jpg
Scientists have struggled with meteorite Lafayette's origin story.

MARHARYTA MARKO/iStock 

Science sleuths may have unlocked the century-old mystery of the origins of a Martian meteorite whose toxins make pigs and humans vomit, according to a press release published on Monday by the University of Glasgow.

Origins unclear

It all began in 1931 when a stone stored in the geological collection of Purdue University in the USA was first identified as a meteorite. What remained unclear for more than 90 years following that discovery was just how and when the meteorite ended up in Purdue.

The meteorite eventually came to be known as Lafayette and has seen many potential origin stories. One of these, reported by American meteorite collector Harvey Nininger in 1935, is that a Black student at Purdue University saw it land in a pond where he was fishing and donated it to the university.

Now, a team of science sleuths have managed to collect enough evidence to suggest that this is indeed what happened in either 1919 or 1927. It all started in 2019 with the work of planetary scientist Dr Áine O’Brien, of the University of Glasgow’s School of Geographical & Earth Sciences.

When analyzing the meteorite, O’Brien noticed a metabolite called deoxynivalenol which is found in a fungus which contaminates grain crops and causes sickness in humans and animals, with pigs being particularly badly affected.

Colleagues familiar with the story of Lafayette’s supposed touchdown to Earth suggested to O’Brien that dust from crops in neighboring farmland could have carried the metabolite to surrounding waterways. Lafayette would have therefore been contaminated when the meteorite landed in a pond.

Science sleuths uncover origin story of meteorite that makes pigs vomit
The four Black students from Purdue University

Further research revealed the historic prevalence of the fungus in Tippecanoe County in Indiana, where Purdue is located. Scientists found that the highest prevalence of the fungus was in the 20 years before 1931.

Analysis of fireball sightings over the same period provided more clues to the timing of Lafayette’s landing. Sightings of a fireball across southern Michigan and northern Indiana were reported on November 26, 1919.

Students found in yearbook records

To give further credence to Nininger’s origin story from 1935, archivists at Purdue University also looked at yearbooks from 1919 and 1927 to find Black students enrolled at the time and identified four men who could have found the meteorite.

These men were Julius Lee Morgan ,Clinton Edward Shaw, Hermanze Edwin Fauntleroy, and Clyde Silance.

“Lafayette is a truly beautiful meteorite sample, which has taught us a lot about Mars through previous research,” said O’Brien in the press release.

“I’m proud that, a century after it reached Earth, we’re finally able to reconstruct the circumstances of its landing and get closer than we’ve ever been to giving credit to the Black student who found it. I’m very glad that one of them may have been there to see Lafayette land and to donate it to Purdue University.”

“These new observations have helped us demonstrate that Lafayette’s origin story is plausible. I hope this sparks additional historical research, so that one day we may give credit to whoever discovered Lafayette,” added co-author of the paper Dr Marissa Tremblay, of the Department of Earth, Atmospheric, and Planetary Sciences at Purdue.

Saturday, October 29th 13:30 PM ET. The story’s title previously referred to the scientists involved in the discovery as amateur scientists. It has since been corrected.

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