Have astronomers found chemical precursor to life in gas clouds?

January 14, 2013

The hydroxylamine┬ámolecule is believed to have had a vital role in cooling down the first stars of the universe, and may still play an important part in the formation of current stars. Above, new stars burst into being in the star-forming nebula Messier 78, imaged by NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope. (Credit:: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

Astronomers have found tentative traces of a precursor chemical to the building blocks of life near a star-forming region about 1,000 light-years from Earth, Space.com reports.

The signal from the molecule, hydroxylamine, which is made up of atoms of nitrogen, hydrogen and oxygen, still needs to be verified. But, if confirmed, it would mean scientists had found a chemical that could potentially seed life on other worlds, and may have played a role in life’s origin on our home planet 3.7 billion years ago.

Some astronomers think that the ingredients for life are formed in cold, gas-, dust- and plasma-filled interstellar clouds. Comets, asteroids and meteors forming in these clouds bear such chemicals, and as they continually bombard planets, they could have deposited the chemicals on Earth or other worlds, said Anthony Remijan, an astrochemist at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory in Charlottesville, Va., who led the research effort.

To test this theory, astronomers look for the chemical fingerprints of simple, inorganic compounds forming in interstellar clouds. These compounds aren’t life or even carbon-based, but they can react with other molecules to form some of the building blocks of life, such as amino acids or the nucleotides that make up DNA.

In recent years, scientists have found several different prebiotic molecules in space, said Brett McGuire, doctoral candidate in chemistry and chemical engineering at the California Institute of Technology.