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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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