Solar systems with suns similar to our own may hold the building blocks of life, according to a study by European scientists.
The study, published Thursday, detected the complex organic molecule methyl isocyanate in a solar system 400 light-years away in the Ophiuchu constellation by using Chile’s Atacama Large Millimeter Array (ALMA) telescope.
“This star system seems to keep on giving!,” Niels Ligterink, a doctoral candidate at Leiden Observatory in the Netherlands, said in a press statement. “Following the discovery of sugars, we’ve now found methyl isocyanate. This family of organic molecules is involved in the synthesis of peptides and amino acids, which, in the form of proteins, are the biological basis for life as we know it.”
ALMA observed the molecule at several different wavelengths and found a unique chemical fingerprint, indicating that the molecules were in the warm, dense inner regions of young stars in their earliest stages of evolution. This strongly suggests that the molecules could be the building blocks of life.
The scientists used computer chemical modeling and laboratory experiments in an attempt to discover how such an organic molecule could have formed.
“Besides detecting molecules we also want to understand how they are formed,” Ligterink said. “Our laboratory experiments show that methyl isocyanate can indeed be produced on icy particles under very cold conditions that are similar to those in interstellar space. This implies that this molecule—and thus the basis for peptide bonds—is indeed likely to be present near most new young solar-type stars.”
This isn’t the first time scientists have found complex organic molecules that could serve as the building blocks of life in deep space. An increasing number of scientific discoveries indicate that organic molecules are more common in the universe than scientists thought.
A University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) study published in February found a white dwarf star with an atmosphere rich in carbon, nitrogen, hydrogens and oxygen — critical components of life on Earth.
The essential biological molecule propylene oxide was found near the center of our galaxy in June in an enormous star-forming cloud of dust and gas known as Sagittarius B2. This molecule is essential for biology and has been found in meteorites within the solar system. It had never been detected before in interstellar space.
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