Building blocks of life found around young star

August 29, 2012
A team of astronomers has found molecules of glycolaldehyde -- a simple form of sugar -- in the gas surrounding a young binary star, with similar mass to the Sun, called IRAS 16293-2422. This is the first time sugar been found in space around such a star, and the discovery shows that the building blocks of life are in the right place, at the right time, to be included in planets forming around the star. The astronomers used the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) to detect the molecules. Credit: ESO/L. Calçada & NASA/JPL-Caltech/WISE Team

(—A team of astronomers using the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) has spotted sugar molecules in the gas surrounding a young Sun-like star. This is the first time sugar been found in space around such a star, and the discovery shows that the building blocks of life are in the right place, at the right time, to be included in planets forming around the star.

The astronomers found molecules of glycolaldehyde—a simple form of sugar—in the gas surrounding a young , with similar mass to the Sun, called IRAS 16293-2422. Glycolaldehyde has been seen in before, but this is the first time it has been found so near to a Sun-like star, at distances comparable to the distance of Uranus from the Sun in the Solar System. This discovery shows that some of the chemical compounds needed for life existed in this system at the time of .

"In the disc of gas and dust surrounding this newly formed star, we found glycolaldehyde, which is a simple form of sugar, not much different to the sugar we put in coffee," explains Jes Jørgensen (Niels Bohr Institute, Denmark), the lead author of the paper. "This molecule is one of the ingredients in the formation of RNA, which—like DNA, to which it is related—is one of the of life."

This image shows an artist’s impression of glycolaldehyde molecules, showing glycolaldehyde’s molecular structure (C2H4O2). Carbon atoms are shown as grey, oxygen atoms as red, and hydrogen atoms as white. Credit: ALMA (ESO/NAOJ/NRAO)/L. Calçada (ESO)

The of ALMA—even at the technically challenging shortest wavelengths at which it operates—was critical for these observations, which were made with a partial array of antennas during the observatory's Science Verification phase.

"What it is really exciting about our findings is that the ALMA observations reveal that the are falling in towards one of the stars of the system," says team member Cecile Favre (Aarhus University, Denmark). "The sugar molecules are not only in the right place to find their way onto a planet, but they are also going in the right direction."

The video will load shortly
This video starts with a broad panorama of the spectacular central regions of the Milky Way seen in visible light. It then zooms in to the Rho Ophiuchi star-forming region in infrared light, highlighting IRAS 16293-2422. Finally, we see an artist's impression of glycolaldehyde molecules, showing glycolaldehyde's molecular structure (C2H4O2). Credit: ALMA (ESO/NAOJ/NRAO) / Nick Risinger ( / S. Guisard ( / L. Calçada (ESO) & NASA/JPL-Caltech/WISE Team Music: Disasterpeace

The gas and dust clouds that collapse to form new stars are extremely cold and many gases solidify as ice on the particles of dust where they then bond together and form more complex molecules. But once a star has been formed in the middle of a rotating cloud of gas and dust, it heats the inner parts of the cloud to around room temperature, evaporating the chemically complex molecules, and forming gases that emit their characteristic radiation as radio waves that can be mapped using powerful radio telescopes such as ALMA.

IRAS 16293-2422 is located around 400 light-years away, comparatively close to Earth, which makes it an excellent target for astronomers studying the molecules and chemistry around young stars. By harnessing the power of a new generation of telescopes such as ALMA, now have the opportunity to study fine details within the gas and dust clouds that are forming planetary systems.

"A big question is: how complex can these molecules become before they are incorporated into new planets? This could tell us something about how life might arise elsewhere, and ALMA observations are going to be vital to unravel this mystery," concludes Jes Jørgensen.

Explore further: Hydrogen peroxide found in space

More information: Research paper

Related Stories

Hydrogen peroxide found in space

July 6, 2011

( -- Molecules of hydrogen peroxide have been found for the first time in interstellar space. The discovery gives clues about the chemical link between two molecules critical for life: water and oxygen. On Earth, ...

Dark clouds in space

September 13, 2011

( -- Infrared dark clouds (IRDCs) are dark patches in the sky seen against the continuous, bright infrared background produced by our galaxy. IRDCs are rich in molecules and relatively dense, cool gas, and they ...

The turbulent birth of super star clusters in galaxy mergers

February 10, 2012

By combining two of the most advanced telescopes in the world -- the new Atacama Large Millimeter Array (ALMA) and the Very Large Telescope (VLT) of ESO -- a team of French astronomers from the Institut d'astrophysique spatiale ...

ALMA reveals workings of nearby planetary system

April 12, 2012

A new observatory still under construction has given astronomers a major breakthrough in understanding a nearby planetary system that can provide valuable clues about how such systems form and evolve. The scientists used ...

ALMA turns its eyes to Centaurus A

May 31, 2012

( -- A new image of the galaxy Centaurus A, made with the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA), shows how the observatory allows astronomers to see through the opaque dust lanes that obscure the galaxy's ...

Recommended for you

Rosetta captures comet outburst

August 25, 2016

In unprecedented observations made earlier this year, Rosetta unexpectedly captured a dramatic comet outburst that may have been triggered by a landslide.

Rocky planet found orbiting habitable zone of nearest star

August 24, 2016

An international team of astronomers including Carnegie's Paul Butler has found clear evidence of a planet orbiting Proxima Centauri, the closest star to our Solar System. The new world, designated Proxima b, orbits its cool ...


Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

1 / 5 (2) Aug 29, 2012
How big could the particles form from these molecules? Would there be lollyite storms on the planet?
not rated yet Aug 29, 2012
Glycolaldehyde is a building block of life, as the aceton or toluen. It's toxic chemical even at minute concentrations, you wouldn't want to have it at home.
1 / 5 (1) Aug 29, 2012
Do we know how Glycolaldehyde molecules apperaed in these dust clouds?
5 / 5 (3) Aug 29, 2012
To answer the first two comments, glycolaldehyde has been found to be raw material for direct formation of RNA nucleotides, bypassing the abiotically difficult sugar ring formation of nucleosides. The nitrobase ring has been found in meteorites now btw, confirming predictions of spontaneous RNA formation.

It is later that nucleotides form heteromers, spontaneously on clay surfaces but also possibly by heat-cold cycles of spontaneously assembled lipid protocells cycling around hydrothermal vents.

In the former case they need to get to ~ 5 bases in length before they start to participate catalytically, after which their formation is promoted by selection on metabolic systems. They do get larger than that on clays.

In the latter case they just need to grow by phosphate activated assembly, as that lowers leakage and the increased volume of the cell promotes selection on lipid scavenging. Again, participation in metabolism kicks in at ~ 5 bases.
5 / 5 (2) Aug 29, 2012
@ radek:

Chemical evolution happens everywhere, but especially around irradiation.

Carbon stars, those that have matured to use the carbon fusion cycle, observably spew out both carbon and organics with their solar winds. So these reactions must start somewhere when the temperature gets below some few thousand K so carbon-carbon and carbon-hydrogen and possibly carbon-oxygen bonds holds.

Later evolution can happen on dust surfaces (which comes from assembled molecules). Here possibly carbon-nitrogen rings are promoted, as they quickly dissipates irradiation as thermal radiation instead of breaking up due to their many vibrational modes.

Even later evolution happens inside meteorites, mostly when they are impacted heated, by the dust they grow out of or other meteorites.

But at that time it is more wet chemistry, lots of water in meteorites from protoplanetary disk formation, and things like amino acids and, now definitively, ringed nitrobases starts to form.
5 / 5 (2) Aug 29, 2012
[cont] The last stages of chemical evolution as it goes into biological evolution happens on planets and perhaps somewhat in large enough planetoids. As the impact heated and differentiated bodies starts to cool, it is now known that enthalpic catalysts are selected above other reactions.

As soon as you bootstrap into a partially autocatalytic system, i.e. it builds parts of itself, exponential growth takes off.

Cell formation on the other hand can happen for two reasons.

- Either metabolically from inorganic pores, as partial closure set up redox potentials that drives metabolic systems locally. Then lipid protocells form as extensions.

- Or hereditary from lipid protocells, as closure sets up preferential replication of "self". (Early RNA ribozyme replicators aren't selective.)

My bet is, since we see RNA/protein genes instead of RNA only genes as the first genes, is the former pathway. In any case, for these you need hydrothermal vents (local redox potentials).
5 / 5 (2) Aug 29, 2012
"In any case, for these" - In any case, for both of these.

Which is why I doubt planetoids without water bodies somewhere inside (like ice moons!) will evolve chemically all the way to cells.

"RNA only genes" - technically these aren't genes.

And I may be a bit jumping the gun, since I don't think RNA functions has yet been included in whole genome studies. On the other hand, many RNA functions outside the genetic machinery seems to be later eukaryote inventions.
1 / 5 (1) Aug 30, 2012
this story is another lame example of something presented as news, which is not news whatsoever, but has been known about for a long time.

the following excerpted quote is from the year 2000 (twelve years ago), from The Astrophysical Journal #540:

"Interstellar glycolaldehyde (CH2 OHCHO) has been detected in emission toward the Galactic center source Sagittarius B2(N) by means of millimeter-wave rotational transitions. Glycolaldehyde is an important biomarker since it is structurally the simplest member of the monosaccharide sugars that heretofore have gone undetected in interstellar clouds."
4 / 5 (4) Aug 30, 2012
@ extinct,

Careful reading of the article reveals that this is not a claim of discovery of glycolaldehyde in interstellar space but the first known instance of C2H4O2 associated with a star.

From the article:

"Glycolaldehyde has been seen in interstellar space before, but this is the first time it has been found so near to a Sun-like star, at distances comparable to the distance of Uranus from the Sun in the Solar System."

1 / 5 (1) Aug 30, 2012
Thx for explanation. I found quite fresh study about this Many possibilities (rather ineficient in given conditions i.e. 10K) but they are theories (except one) so we don`t know it yet. BTW why we didn`t find plenty of Glycolaldehyde in our solar system? We have life based on organic so it should be abundant?
not rated yet Sep 03, 2012
Our solar system is much older than the system mentioned in the article, gravity hasn't yet had the time to do it's thing.

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.