Molecules that are essential for life are thought to be plentiful in the Milky Way’s heart, research has found.
At very early periods in Earth’s history, we are aware of an intense asteroid bombardment of the inner solar system. Prebiotic molecules have also been found in meteorites, comets, and asteroids orbiting the sun. But what we know less about is how meteors, comets, and asteroids acquire these particles?
According to researchers, the cosmic objects may have obtained these molecules from the cosmic clouds they were born in: cold molecular clouds that give rise to stars.
The leftovers of an initial cloud that formed a star form everything else in the planetary system. This includes planets, comets, asteroids, dwarf planets, and anything else that might lurk in the background.
Although the birth cloud of the solar system has long since disappeared, molecular clouds are still at the center of the galaxy. It’s called the Central Molecular Zone, and researchers have discovered a lot of prebiotic molecules there.
There is one cloud, in particular, called G+0.693-0.027, that is of particular interest. Although no stars have formed there yet, scientists believe one or more will form there soon.
“Here we show that the chemistry that takes place in the interstellar medium is capable of efficiently forming multiple nitriles, which are key molecular precursors of the “RNA World” scenario,” explained astrobiologist Víctor Rivilla of the Higher Council for Scientific Research and of the National Institute of Aerospace Technology of Spain.
Using two telescopes, the researchers analyzed the spectrum of light coming from the cloud. A darker or lighter line can be seen in the spectrum when certain elements or molecules absorb and re-emit light. Identifying the molecules present based on their absorption and emission lines can be challenging, but each has its own signature spectral signature.
A variety of nitriles, including cyanic acid, cyanoallene, propargyl cyanide, and cyanopropyne, were identified by studying the emission characteristics of G+ 0.693-0.027. In addition to cyanoformaldehyde, glycolonitrile was also tentatively detected.
Cyanoformaldehyde and glycolonitrile were previously detected in G+0.693-0.027. Based on this, it is likely that nitriles are one of the most abundant chemical families in the Milky Way and that they are the building blocks that give birth to stars and planets.
The work is not yet finished, however. “Until now we have detected several simple precursors of ribonucleotides, the basic components of RNA,” said astrobiologist Izaskun Jiménez-Serra.
“We have detected so far several simple precursors of ribonucleotides, the building blocks of RNA. But there are still key missing molecules that are hard to detect.”
As we know, lipids, responsible for the formation of the first cells, also played a role in the origin of life on Earth. The researchers have revealed that it is also important to understand how lipids are formed from simpler interstellar precursors.
The research has been published in Frontiers in Astronomy and Space Sciences.
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