Jun 28, 2017 | Updated: 09:10 PM EDT

Why Are Scientists Excited About Finding a Chemical 400 Light Years Away?

Jun 19, 2017 04:06 PM EDT

Birthplace of Stars
(Photo : GettyImages.com)

Astrochemists scour space for signs of life. Their goal? To find the chemicals of living things -- amino acids, carbohydrates, nucleic acids, or lipids -- among the stars. That goal remains elusive. But a new discovery indicates the chemists may be on the right track, and the implications for the origin of life on Earth are profound.

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Two independent groups of scientists have discovered the chemical methyl isocyanate in a multiple-star system 400 light years away. The system, IRAS 16293-2422, is in the constellation Ophiuchus and is a protostar nursery, where some stars are only 10,000 years old.

Both teams of researchers pointed the receivers of Chile's Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) towards IRAS 16293-2422 and looked for the chemical signals of life's precursors. Both teams are certain they found methyl isocyanate.

Why is methyl isocyanate important? It's not an amino acid, but it has a structure that resembles a peptide bond -- the kind of bond that joins one amino acid to another. A chemical that doubles as a peptide bond might join simple amino acids together. A long string of these amino acids could mark the simplest path to the formation of a protein.

And proteins are the building blocks of life.

Rafael Martín-Doménech from Centro de Astrobiología in Madrid, Spain, and Osservatorio Astrofisico di Arcetri's Víctor Rivilla know that not only is the structure of methyl isocyanate important, but where it is found is quite significant.

IRAS 16293-2422 is a birthplace of stars, a breeding ground like the one our sun may have been formed in 4.6 billion years ago. The presence of this chemical in a protostar grouping may indicate that the chemistry of life is intimately bound with the formation of stars and solar systems. Our own earth could have then begun with a set of chemicals that aided the rise of life.

Previously, another important chemical was found in the same star system. Glycolaldehyde is an organic molecule that plays a role in the formation of the sugars that make up DNA. Add to this the discovery of a peptide-bond like molecule and it appears that protostar system may give rise not only to stars but to important biochemicals.

How are these chemicals in distant star systems detected? When methyl isocyanate (or any chemical) undergoes a chemical transformation, it releases energy of a specific electromagnetic type. Both teams used ALMA's Protostellar Interferometric Line Survey (PILS) capabilities to scan wavelengths between infrared and radio frequencies. Both teams found the wavelength signatures of methyl isocyanate.

A second study is by Leiden Observatory's Niels Ligterink and Audrey Coutens of University College, London. They suggested that methyl isocyanate could form on icy particles that surround evolving stars. The mechanisms are not clear yet how these chemicals form, they may form on the surface of dust particles.

What other biochemicals will be found in IRAS 16293-2422? Is what is happening there the same as what happened when our sun was born?

Both studies were published in Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.

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