Key ingredient of life found circling infant stars

2017-06-10 10:30
An artist impression of a very close-up view of a methyl isocyanate prebiotic molecule. (European Southern Observatory, via AFP)

An artist impression of a very close-up view of a methyl isocyanate prebiotic molecule. (European Southern Observatory, via AFP)

Multimedia   ·   User Galleries   ·   News in Pictures Send us your pictures  ·  Send us your stories

Paris - Two teams of astronomers said on Thursday they have for the first time detected a key chemical building block of life swirling around infant stars that resemble our Sun before its planets formed.

The molecule, methyl isocyanate, "plays an essential role in the formation of proteins, which are basic ingredients for life", said Victor Rivilla, a scientist at the Astrophysics Observatory in Florence, Italy, and co-author of a study published in Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.

The findings could offer clues on how chemicals sparked into living matter on Earth several billion years ago.

At the very least, they show that elements crucial for the emergence of life "were very likely already available at the earliest stage of solar system formation," said Niels Ligterink, a researcher at Leiden Observatory in The Netherlands, and lead author of a second study in the same journal.

Scientists spotted the organic compound in a dense envelope of interstellar dust and gas circling three young stars about 400 light years from Earth in the constellation Ophiuchus, better known as the Serpent Bearer.

Using the Atacama array of radiotelescopes in the northern desert of Chile, the two teams independently isolated the chemical signature of methyl isocyanate, and then followed up with computer modelling and laboratory experiments to probe the molecule's origins.

"Thanks to the amazing capabilities of current telescopes, we are discovering more and more complex organic molecules around the birthplaces of stars and planets," Rivilla told AFP.

Life-giving but toxic 

Scientists also recently detected sugars in space, including a compound called glycolaldehyde, which plays a role in the formation of DNA structure.

Methyl isocyanate beyond our atmosphere was first discovered two years ago, but in a very different context: near complex, high-mass stars many times bigger than the Sun. These are not environments that can yield planetary systems like our own.

Earth and the other planets in our Solar System formed about 4.5 billion years ago out of matter left over from the Sun.

At this very early stage of evolution, the material feeding the formation of the three-star system described Thursday - known prosaically as IRAS 16293-2422 - is rotating in a disk around each star.

Some of the gas and dust will fall to the stars, and the rest will make up the planets.

Paradoxically, methyl isocyanate - and other chemical precursors to life - are highly toxic, potentially lethal, to humans and other animals.

"This makes laboratory work challenging," Ligterink noted dryly by email.

Indeed, methyl isocyanate (CH3NCO) was the main poison in the 1984 Bhopal disaster in India, in which a leak from a pesticide factory on the night of December 2 killed more than 3 700 people.

But in combination with other molecules, such as water, it transforms and can eventually lead to life-bearing compounds.

One of the new studies contained a note in memory of the Bhopal victims.

Read more on:    italy  |  france  |  netherlands  |  chile  |  space exploration

Join the conversation!

24.com encourages commentary submitted via MyNews24. Contributions of 200 words or more will be considered for publication.

We reserve editorial discretion to decide what will be published.
Read our comments policy for guidelines on contributions.
NEXT ON NEWS24X

Inside News24

 
/News
 

Buying a puppy? Don’t get scammed!

Hundreds of complaints are filed every year from victims who were scammed when buying a dog online.

 
 

Paws

WATCH: These funny animal videos will make you LOL!
11 animals before and after they were adopted from shelters
Competition pet grooming – creative or too extreme?
5 Celebrities who are afraid of animals
Traffic Alerts
There are new stories on the homepage. Click here to see them.
 
English
Afrikaans
isiZulu

Hello 

Create Profile

Creating your profile will enable you to submit photos and stories to get published on News24.


Please provide a username for your profile page:

This username must be unique, cannot be edited and will be used in the URL to your profile page across the entire 24.com network.

Settings

Location Settings

News24 allows you to edit the display of certain components based on a location. If you wish to personalise the page based on your preferences, please select a location for each component and click "Submit" in order for the changes to take affect.




Facebook Sign-In

Hi News addict,

Join the News24 Community to be involved in breaking the news.

Log in with Facebook to comment and personalise news, weather and listings.