© Agence France-Presse/ NASA
A new kind of organic molecule has been discovered in a giant gas cloud in interstellar space, indicating that more complex molecules - the very core building blocks of life - can potentially form outside of the Earth and even be widespread in space.
The analysis of a star-forming gas cloud some 27,000 light years away from Earth, published
in the journal Science
, detected an iso-propyl cyanide molecule with a unique structure that is common in life-forming molecules, such as amino acids.
While finding a simple organic chemical in space is nothing new, a carbon-bearing molecule with a branched structure has been discovered for the first time, indicating that biologically crucial molecules can form not only on Earth, but in deep space too.
"This detection suggests that branched carbon-chain molecules may be generally abundant in the ISM [interstellar medium]," the study's abstract reads.
The scientists - Dr Arnaud Belloche of the Max Planck Institute for Radioastronomy and his colleagues - found the molecule in a gas cloud called Sagittarius B2 - the "star factory"
near the center of the Milky Way where many new stars are formed.
© Reuters/ESA/Hubble & NASA
The team used the 12 telescopes of the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA), in Chile, to make its observations.
"Amino acids on Earth are the building blocks of proteins, and proteins are very important for life as we know it. The question in the background is: is there life somewhere else in the galaxy?" Belloche told the BBC.
"Our goal is to search for new complex organic molecules in the interstellar medium," he said.
And the evidence suggests their presence could actually be widespread.