New Alien Molecule In Space Hints At Origin Of Life

Dawn Papple

27,000 light-years from our home, astronomers have found a complex molecule within a giant gas cloud in interstellar space that scientists from Cornell, the Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy and the University of Cologne in Germany suggest may offer hints about the origin of life, and at what point in the development of stars and planets, the molecules develop. The discovery of the complex, carbon-based molecules with a branched structure is like "finding a molecular needle in a cosmic haystack," according to Science Direct, which reported that the research team has detected radio waves put off by isopropyl cyanide.

The researchers say the discovery, which was made using the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array, known as the ALMA Observatory, implies that molecules imperative for life might have their origins in interstellar space. Radio telescopes, funded in part by the National Science Foundation, were used to look at the interstellar gaseous star-forming region known as Sagittarius B2, according to Science 2.0. The research was published on September 26 in the journal Science.

The difference between these molecules and molecules normally found within regions where stars are forming is that normally the organic molecules found have one "'backbone' of carbon atoms arranged in a straight chain," according to Science Direct. In these newly discovered molecules, the carbon of isopropyl cyanide branches off, instead of staying in a single chain.

Rob Garrod, Cornell senior research associate at the Center for Radiophysics and Space Research said that it is the very first time such a complex molecule has been detected in interstellar space when a star was still forming.

The finding is exciting researchers, because it demonstrated that complex carbon-based molecules can be formed in interstellar space, and then these potential building blocks of life can eventually find their way onto the surface of planets. The complex alien molecules have features in common with molecules like amino acids, the building blocks of protein. These molecules, which are sometimes found in meteorites, might actually be produced early on in the development of new stars, long before planets are ever formed.

"Understanding the production of organic material at the early stages of star formation is critical to piecing together the gradual progression from simple molecules to potentially life-bearing chemistry," lead author Arnaud Belloche explained. About 120 features of the normal straight-chain molecules were identified in the region, and 50 features of the more complex molecules were identified. Both isopropyl cyanide, the potential building block of life, and the more simple normal-propyl cyanide, are the largest molecules to ever have been found in a region of space where stars are still in their early development.

[Photo via NRAO]