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Wednesday, December 3, 2008

The Seed of Life Floats Between The Stars

Astronomers have detected a building block of RNA floating within the hot, compact core of a massive star-forming region in the Milky Way. The molecule appears to have formed with all of the other stuff that makes up planets, suggesting that many other worlds are seeded with some of life's ingredients right from birth.

Using the IRAM radio dish array in France, a team of European astronomers has detected glycolaldehyde--a simple sugar that makes up ribose, one of the constituents of RNA--within the core of what appears to be a coalescing disk of dust and gas in a star-forming region called G31.41+0.31, about 26,000 light-years away. The sugar molecule can apparently form in a simple reaction between carbon monoxide molecules and dust grains.

The discovery is significant for two reasons.

1: G31.41+0.31 lies far away from the radiation-filled center of the Milky Way, so if any biological processes start up there, they will have a chance to establish themselves.

2: The abundance of glycolaldehyde in the G31.41+0.31 cloud suggests that the molecule is "common throughout star-forming regions," says astrophysicist and co-author Serena Viti of University College London. The implication is that wherever there is starmaking and planet formation going on, organic building blocks could be assembling as well.

Astrobiologist Michael Mumma of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, says it's possible that life's building blocks arrive on planets after this violent period has passed. Glycolaldehyde, for example, seems to be located in an area of the star-forming region where it could become part of comets. If so, Mumma says, some of those comets could eventually deliver the sugar to young planets. From Science Now
First detection of glycolaldehyde outside the Galactic Center. 2008. M.T. Beltran et al. Astrophysics