One of the great mysteries of science is how life arose on Earth. We just don’t know. Did it evolve from scratch, from chemical reactions inside Earth’s early primordial ooze? Did it come to us in bacterial form from Mars, where it evolved further here? Did our solar system pass through some cloud of organic material as it spun around the galaxy? Are we all just in The Matrix? We simply don’t know.
A hint comes from studies of a distant cluster of sun-like stars called IRAS 16293-2422, which discovered the presence of a complex organic molecule called methyl isocyanate. This “prebiotic” molecule is very similar to peptide, which is what holds the amino acids inside proteins together. Proteins are an essential part of life as we know it.
These stars are very young, suggesting that complex organic molecules can form even before planets do, under the right conditions. Methyl isocyanate was also discovered in the comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko two years ago in our own solar system, which shows this compound also existed while our own planet was being formed. Methyl isocyanate has also been found inside large star-forming gas clouds, such as Orion KL and Sagittarius B2(N).
Together these findings suggest that the building blocks of organic life are easily found in the environments stars form within – it’s not something unique to our solar system. What we don’t know is how unique our solar system is in providing the conditions needed to build these components into actual living, breathing creatures such as ourselves! But we’re one step closer to understanding that process.
This discovery was made using the ALMA array, a group of 66 dishes high in the Andes mountains, using both new and archived data. The results are published in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society and summarized nicely at the AAAS Science website.
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