A molecule of life has been detected in the center of the Milky Way galaxy. 27,000 light years away from earth, a complex carbon molecule with a branched structure known as iso-propyl cyanide has been discovered by ALMA, the Atacama Large Millimeter Array in Chile.
Scientists from the Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy, Cornell University and the University of Cologne have worked together to search for organic molecules in outer space. Iso-propyl cyanide is the most complex organic molecule found thus far. Its branching structure is necessary for larger molecules such as amino acids, the building blocks of proteins. The discovery of iso-propyl cyanide suggests that the elements necessary for life may be found across this galaxy and beyond. The molecules and structures necessary to build life are not unique to Earth.
The ALMA telescope array detected the iso-propyl cyanide in Sagittarius B2, a star-forming cloud rich with gases and dust. As stars develop the dust grains heat up and chemical reactions occur on their surfaces. Hydrogen-rich, carbon-bearing molecules that are closely related to those which form the basis for life on Earth are most commonly found inside the giant clouds that give rise to stars. Sagittarius B2 is known for being rich in emissions from complex organic molecules. The molecules emit radiation which can be picked up by huge telescope arrays. Each spectral fingerprint is unique and can be matched to known molecules characterized in the laboratory.
Iso-propyl alcohol is not the first molecule of life detected in the center of the Milky Way Galaxy. Scientists have identified other organic molecules such as vinyl alcohol, ethyl formate and normal-propyl cyanide. These molecules can also be found on earth, but have a straight chain carbon structure which classifies them as simple molecules. The iso-propyl alcohol is the first to hint of more complex molecules being out there. Could amino acids be floating in space? The study found that iso-propyl alcohol is actually abundant which means branched molecules may be plentiful in space. Professor Matt Griffin, head of physics and astronomy at Cardiff University stated, “There seems to be quite a lot of it, which would indicate that this more complex organic structure is possibly very common, maybe even the norm, when it comes to simple organic molecules in space.”
Dr. Arnoaud Belloche from the Planck Institute said, “Our goal is to search for new complex organic molecules in the interstellar medium.” The next step is to find n-butyl cyanide and its three-branched isomer. Each step up the alkyl cyanide series brings astronomers, physicists and biologists a little closer to the holy grail of amino acids. Earth’s arrays cannot detect amino acids in space because they do not give off enough radiation. However, if there are amino acids in these vast molecular clouds then life in the universe may be much more common than previously expected.
Far away, in the center of the galaxy, a vast cloud churns with plasma, gas and dust. It gives birth to stars and planetary systems. Might it also give rise to the stuff of life? A molecule of life was detected in the center of the Milky Way galaxy. How complex can pre-biotic molecules be? People may have to rethink their idea of how life on Earth began and developed. Did life spring from the earth or was it born in a nebula and flung across the universe?
By: Rebecca Savastio