How carbon atoms combine is a vital clue to origin of life

Organic life consists of molecules made around a carbon backbone and knowing how it came about could help us understand life itself.
Ameya Paleja
An artistic depiction of the formation of organic compounds on interstellar ice.
An artistic depiction of the formation of organic compounds on interstellar ice.

Masashi Tsuge 

Studies conducted by researchers at the University of Tokyo and Hokkaido University in Japan have provided some insights into how carbon atoms come together on interstellar ice grains. Understanding this process is crucial to understanding how life originated here on Earth and probably elsewhere in the universe, too, a press release said.

The carbon atom is central to understanding the chemistry that led to the origin of life. Scientists call this organic chemistry, where all molecules involved in life processes are based on a skeleton of bonded carbon atoms.

For all our scientific and technological advances, we do not know how we came to be on this planet and if life exists elsewhere. If we understand the basic process of how life originates, we can also predict where life could exist. This is something researchers have been trying to work out in the laboratories.

How carbon atoms come together

The origin of carbon atoms came to be due to nuclear fusion in stars. When these stars die, the explosion of the supernovae disperses the carbon atoms into interstellar space. To make organic molecules, however, these carbon atoms need to come together and make chemical bonds between them.

Previous research suggests that this process happens on the ice grains in interstellar space that offer extremely low temperatures for the reaction to take place. Moreover, these ice grains are present in abundance in interstellar space and make it possible.

What the researchers had not known was how the reaction occurred, and through experiments in the lab, the Japanese researchers attempted to solve this puzzle. They found that at extremely low temperatures, carbon atoms diffused and reacted to form diatomic carbon (C2) molecules.

Where is diatomic carbon formed?

The researchers found that diffusion occurred at temperatures of 30 Kelvin (minus 243 °C/minus 405.4 °F) in the laboratory, while in space, the same reaction could happen at just 22 Kelvin (minus 251 °C/minus 419.8 °F).

How carbon atoms combine is a vital clue to origin of life
Above 30 Kelvin (minus 243 °C/minus 405.4 °F) carbon atoms diffuse and bond together to form diatomic carbon, C2.

Masashi Tsuge, a chemist at Hokkaido University, states their findings have brought to the fore a chemical process that has previously been overlooked. Tsuge suggests that complex organic molecules could be formed by the steady addition of carbon atoms instead of creating a complete molecule at once.

Such addition of carbon atoms could likely take place in the protoplanetary disks around stars, which is also the place where planets are formed. Alternatively, these conditions could be the result of translucent clouds, which later evolved into a star-forming region. These are likely explanations of how the many chemicals occurred on Earth and perhaps seeded life.

Apart from answering the important question of how life originated, the study also sheds light on how a large number of molecules were plausibly made and even continue to be made throughout the universe.

Just like how these molecules possibly led to the origin of life, it is also possible that the continuous formation of new molecules might lead to a change in the future.

The research findings were published in the journal Nature Astronomy.

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