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In terms of life's greatest mysteries, there is none more sought-after and elusive as the question of how life emerged. Now, research led by Queen Mary University of London may have found a key piece of a potential future answer.
Researchers have discovered an entirely new organic molecule called glycolonitrile (HOCH2CN) that existed before the emergence of life. The pre-biotic molecule was detected in the material from which a star forms.
Pre-biotic molecules are potential chemical or environmental precursors of the origin of life. Detecting them in solar-type protostars helps astronomers understand how our solar system formed.
The molecules serve as indicators that planets created around a star could start to exist through a supply of the chemical ingredients needed to make some form of life. This particular star material molecule was discovered in a solar-type protostar known as IRAS16293-2422 B.
Located in the constellation of Ophiuchus about 450 light-years from Earth, IRAS16293-2422 B has some ideal conditions for the beginning of life.
It is a warm and dense region that not only houses young stars at the earliest stage of their evolution but that does so in similar conditions that we know to have been present when our very own Solar System formed.
"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," said lead author Shaoshan Zeng, from Queen Mary University of London.
A significant step
The discovery is touted as a significant step forward for pre-biotic astrochemistry. Glycolonitrile is recognized as a key precursor towards the formation of adenine, one of the four nucleobases in the nucleic acid of DNA. Adenine is responsible for both DNA and RNA in living organisms.
The discovery was made possible by examining the period when the star is forming, called the interstellar medium, with the use of the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimetre Array (ALMA) telescope in Chile.
Using this data, astronomers were able to detect and identify the chemical signatures of glycolonitrile. Not only that, they were able to deduce the conditions in which the pre-biotic molecule was discovered.
The research was also supported by 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.
The study is published in the journal Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society: Letters.