Scientists were recently observing a region in space located some 450 light years from Earth.


The Rho Ophiuchi is a star-forming region in space. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

During their observations of a young sun-like star (IRAS16293-2422 B), the researchers discovered the existence of a molecule that may have helped kick start life on Earth.

As explained by the research team led by the Queen Mary University of London, this is the first time scientists detected the molecule glycolonitrile in this type of protostar. Scientists made us of the Atacama Large Millimeter/ submillimetre Array (ALMA) telescope in Chile as they observed the interstellar medium in search of various pre-biotic molecules.

IRAS16293-2422 B is a well-known protostar located in the constellation of Ophiuchus, a star-forming region known as Rho Ophiuchi, located around 450 light-years from Earth.

Rho Ophiuchi is a dark nebula of gas and dust and is one of the closest star-forming regions to the Solar System.

Interestingly, in previous observations of the same interstellar medium, researchers discovered traces of methyl isocyanate, which is an isomer of glycolonitrile.

Methyl Isocyanate is involved in the creation of more complex molecules like peptides and amino acids, such as proteins.

An image of the Rho Ophiuchi star formation region with IRAS16293-2422 B circled. Image Credit: ESO/Digitized Sky Survey 2. Acknowledgment: Davide De Martin.

As noted by an article describing the discovery from the University’s website, the finding, published in the journal Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society: Letters is a significant step forward for pre-biotic astrochemistry.

Finding glycolonitrile could help us understand what conditions existed during the formation of a solar system, and how life came to be.

Glycolonitrile is considered a precursor to the formation of adenine, which plays a  fundamental role in both DNA and RNA.

Experts explain that the conditions that rule within the star-forming region observed by them are very similar to the conditions that existed in our solar system when it formed, billions of years ago.

Speaking about the discovery, lead author Shaoshan Zeng, from Queen Mary University of London said: “We have shown that this important pre-biotic molecule can be formed in the material from which stars and planets emerge, taking us a step closer to identifying the processes that may have led to the origin of life on Earth.”

The new study was carried out with participating scientists from the ‘Centro de Astrobiología in Spain’, ‘INAF-Osservatorio Astrofisico di Arcetri’ in Italy, the ‘European Southern Observatory’, and the ‘Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics’ in the USA.


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