Scientists discover key molecules for origins of life in space

Credit: Unsplash+.

A team of scientists at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa is making significant strides in understanding the early forms of life in the universe, which may have eventually led to the development of life on Earth.

In a newly published paper in Nature Astronomy, researchers from the Department of Chemistry have discovered how crucial molecules can form in space, offering insights into the origins of life.

The focus of their study is on nitrogen-carrying aromatic molecules. These molecules are vital in various areas of chemistry and biology, serving as the building blocks for compounds like pharmaceuticals, dyes, plastics, and natural products.

They are also found in essential biomolecules such as amino acids, DNA, RNA, and vitamins.

Using molecular beams, the research team, led by Professor Ralf I. Kaiser, recreated the environments of the Taurus Molecular Cloud and Titan’s atmosphere.

The Taurus Molecular Cloud is a dense region of interstellar gas and dust where new stars are forming, while Titan, Saturn’s largest moon, has an atmosphere similar to Earth’s early conditions due to its nitrogen-rich composition and presence of methane.

In collaboration with Professor Alexander M. Mebel from Florida International University, who conducted electronic structure calculations, and interstellar and atmospheric modeling experts Professor Xiaohu Li from the Chinese Academy of Sciences and Professor Jean-Christophe Loison from the University of Bordeaux, postdoctoral fellow Zhenghai Yang identified fundamental structural units of aromatic molecules.

This research provides new pathways to understanding how the building blocks of DNA and RNA might have formed in space, reshaping our ideas about the origins of life’s ingredients throughout the galaxy.

“The study suggests that nitrogen-carrying aromatic molecules—pyridine, pyridinyl, and (iso)quinoline—could have been synthesized in environments that scientists are focusing on due to their similarities to Earth,” Kaiser explained.

“Understanding how these molecules form is vital for unraveling the mysteries of life’s origins. Findings like these could have future implications, not only for practical applications in biotechnology and synthetic biology but also in combustion sciences.”

By simulating the conditions found in space and conducting detailed analyses, the team has shown that these important molecules can form in interstellar environments.

This discovery enhances our understanding of how life’s essential components might have originated in the cosmos and subsequently found their way to Earth.

This groundbreaking research brings us closer to answering one of humanity’s most profound questions: how did life begin?

By uncovering the processes that create the building blocks of life in space, scientists are piecing together the cosmic puzzle of life’s origins. The implications of this study extend beyond theoretical knowledge, potentially influencing various scientific fields and leading to new technological advancements.

Source: University of Hawaii at Manoa.