Life's Building Blocks Are Common In Space

October 11, 2005
Life's Building Blocks Are Common In Space

A team of NASA exobiology researchers revealed today organic chemicals that play a crucial role in the chemistry of life are common in space.
"Our work shows a class of compounds that is critical to biochemistry is prevalent throughout the universe," said Douglas Hudgins, an astronomer at NASA's Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, Calif. He is principal author of a study detailing the team's findings that appears in the Oct. 10 issue of the Astrophysical Journal.

Image: NASA Spitzer Space Telescope image of the spiral galaxy M81, located some 12 million light years from Earth. The infrared radiation emitted by polycyclic nitrogen-containing aromatic hydrocarbon (PANH) molecules is shown in red. This emission is excited by star (and planet) formation along the edges of the spiral arms.

"NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope has shown complex organic molecules called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) are found in every nook and cranny of our galaxy. While this is important to astronomers, it has been of little interest to astrobiologists, scientists who search for life beyond Earth. Normal PAHs aren't really important to biology," Hudgins said. "However, our work shows the lion's share of the PAHs in space also carry nitrogen in their structures. That changes everything."

"Much of the chemistry of life, including DNA, requires organic molecules that contain nitrogen," said team member Louis Allamandola, an astrochemist at Ames. "Chlorophyll, the substance that enables photosynthesis in plants, is a good example of this class of compounds, called polycyclic aromatic nitrogen heterocycles, or PANHs. Ironically, PANHs are formed in abundance around dying stars. So even in death, the seeds of life are sewn," Allamandola said.

The NASA team studied the infrared "fingerprint" of PANHs in laboratory experiments and with computer simulations to learn more about infrared radiation that astronomers have detected coming from space. They used data from the European Space Agency's Infrared Space Observatory satellite.

Source: NASA

Explore further: Measuring thermal expansion at low temperatures for future space missions

Related Stories

Innovative planet-finding technology passes another hurdle

November 13, 2015

A potentially revolutionary instrument now being developed to first find Earth-like planets in other solar systems and then study their atmospheres to identify chemical signatures of life has just passed another technological ...

Dawn starts steep descent to most dazzling orbit of Ceres

October 30, 2015

The most dazzling views ever seen of dwarf planet Ceres and its mysterious bright spots are what's on tap by year's end as NASA's amazing Dawn spacecraft starts a gradual but steep descent over the next two months to its ...

The sun

September 28, 2015

The sun is the center of the Solar System and the source of all life and energy here on Earth. It accounts for more than 99.86% of the mass of the Solar System and it's gravity dominates all the planets and objects that orbit ...

Recommended for you

Amazon deforestation leaps 16 percent in 2015

November 28, 2015

Illegal logging and clearing of Brazil's Amazon rainforest increased 16 percent in the last year, the government said, in a setback to the aim of stopping destruction of the world's greatest forest by 2030.


Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.