"Long before it's in the papers"
January 27, 2015


Out in space, the most complex organic molecule yet

Sept. 28, 2014
Courtesy Cornell University
and World Science staff

Out in space, as­tro­no­mers have iden­ti­fied the most com­plex or­gan­ic mol­e­cule yet—the types of mol­e­cules that serve as in­gre­di­ents for life on Earth.

That such mol­e­cules ex­ist in space sug­gests an in­creased like­li­hood of life be­ing com­mon on oth­er plan­ets, the re­search­ers ar­gue. The idea is that such mol­e­cules could find their way on­to plan­ets, then be­come part of life forms.

Or­gan­ic mol­e­cules are mol­e­cules based on the el­e­ment car­bon. To date, only sim­ple or­gan­ic mol­e­cules had been iden­ti­fied in space, sug­gest­ing the pos­si­bil­ity that the more com­plex types, needed for life, had to wait for the Earth to form be­fore they could evolve.

As­tro­no­mers found the un­usu­al car­bon-based mol­e­cule while hunt­ing from a dis­tance of 27,000 light-years. A light-year is the dis­tance light trav­els in a year. Us­ing an ob­serv­a­to­ry known as AL­MA, for At­a­cama Large Mil­lime­ter/­sub-mil­lime­ter Ar­ray, they stud­ied a dis­tant re­gion of star-form­ing gas­es, called Sag­it­ta­ri­us B2. The as­tro­no­mers de­scribe their find­ings Sept. 26 in the re­search jour­nal Sci­ence.

Or­gan­ic mol­e­cules are known to turn up in star-forming re­gions, but those or­gan­ic mol­e­cules found to date are sim­ple—they have a sin­gle “back­bone” of car­bon atoms laid out in a straight line. Car­bon “back­bones” are char­ac­ter­is­tic of or­gan­ic mol­e­cules, but in more com­plex or­gan­ic mol­e­cules, that back­bone is of­ten branched.

Such is al­so the case with the new­found mol­e­cule—iso­pro­pyl cyan­ide—which makes it the first de­tec­tion of such a mol­e­cule in space, said study col­la­bor­ator Rob Gar­rod, sen­ior re­search as­so­ci­ate at the Cen­ter for Ra­di­o phys­ics and Space Re­search at Cor­nell Uni­vers­ity in New York.

The find­ing lends weight to the idea that bi­o­log­ic­ally cru­cial mol­e­cules, like ami­no acids com­monly found in me­te­orites, form early in the pro­cess of star forma­t­ion – even be­fore plan­ets such as Earth are formed, Gar­rod and col­leagues said.

Gar­rod and col­leagues sought to ex­am­ine the chem­i­cal make­up of Sag­it­ta­ri­us B2, a re­gion close to the cen­ter of our gal­axy, and rich in or­gan­ic mol­e­cules. With AL­MA, the group con­ducted a spec­tral sur­vey – a search for the “fin­ger­prints” of mol­e­cules – with sen­si­ti­vity and res­o­lu­tion they said was 10 times great­er than pre­vi­ous sur­veys.

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