Building Blocks of Life Detected in Distant Galaxy

February 5, 2008

The discovery of an amino acid precursor in a far-flung galaxy is fresh evidence that life has potential to form throughout the universe, scientists say.

Researchers using the world's largest radio telescope—the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico—have detected methanimine in the distant galaxy Arp 220.

Researchers had previously detected evidence of formaldehyde, ammonia, hydrogen cyanide, and possibly formic acid in the star-forming region.

Methanimine can form the simplest amino acid, glycine, when it reacts with either hydrogen cyanide and then water, or formic acid.

"The fact that we can observe these substances at such a vast distance means that there are huge amounts of them in Arp 220," said Emmanuel Momjian, a former Arecibo astronomer, now at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory in Socorro, New Mexico.

"It is indeed very intriguing to find that the ingredients of life appear in large quantities where new stars and planets are born."

The scientists warn, however, that Arp 220 has undergone a recent merger and hosts a vibrant star nursery. With new stars living hot and fast, then violently exploding, conditions are probably too turbulent to allow life to evolve.

But the ingredients for life could take root later, when more stable, sun-like stars are born. (Related: "Newborn Planet Found Orbiting Young Star" [January 3, 2008].)

Hitting the Jackpot

The new discovery came during the first of two summers that scientists spent surveying Arp 220's composition using the Arecibo telescope. The details of the find were unveiled at last month's meeting of the American Astronomical Society in Austin, Texas.

Chris Salter, an Arecibo astronomer, likened the chemical survey to a "treasure hunt" that hit gold on the very first night of observing.

Methanimine has been previously detected in our own galaxy and tentatively in the nearby galaxy NGC 253, "but never beyond the neighborhood," he writes with his co-authors in a paper that has been submitted for publication in the Astronomical Journal.

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