Scientists detect molecules that could lead to life near Earth

Prebiotic molecules could eventually lead to the evolution of complex alien life forms in a region surprisingly near Earth.
Chris Young
Artist's impression of a “soup” of prebiotic molecules.
Artist's impression of a “soup” of prebiotic molecules.

Gabriel Pérez Díaz (IAC) 

A team of scientists has discovered the presence of several prebiotic molecules in the star-forming region IC348 of the Perseus Molecular Cloud, a press statement reveals.

The Perseus Molecular Cloud is a relatively young star cluster roughly 2-3 million years old. It is one of the nearest star-forming regions to Earth.

In a new paper, the researchers describe how they detected the biological molecules, considered vital building blocks for more complex molecules such as amino acids.

Ultimately, prebiotic molecules could one day allow life to flourish in that particular region of space.

Tracing the formation of amino acids and life

Amino acids formed the genetics of ancient microorganisms, allowing complex life to evolve on Earth. This means that figuring out the abundance of precursor molecules that lead to the formation of amino acids is vital in understanding the evolution of the cosmos.

The more of these precursor molecules in the universe, the more likely we are to find extraterrestrial life.

The Perseus Cloud "is an extraordinary laboratory of organic chemistry," Susan Iglesias-Groth, from the Instituto de Astrofísica de Canarias (IAC) and one of the researchers on the project, explained in the press release. "These are complex molecules of pure carbon which often occur as building blocks for the key molecules of life."

In their study, published in the journal Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, the researchers explain how they detected common molecules such as molecular hydrogen, hydroxyl, water, carbon dioxide, and ammonia in the Perseus Molecular Cloud.

They also detected several carbon-bearing molecules that could be essential in producing more complex hydrocarbons and prebiotic molecules.

The scientists behind the discovery also noted the presence of the molecules near protoplanetary disks surrounding newly-formed stars. These discs contain materials that eventually group to form planets and create a solar system surrounding a star.

James Webb could find more prebiotic molecules

The researchers detected the prebiotic molecules using data collected by NASA's Spitzer satellite. Next, they hope to carry out follow-up analyses in observations gathered by the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST).

"The spectroscopic capacity of the JWST could provide details about the spatial distribution of all these molecules, and extend the present search to others which are more complex, giving higher sensitivity and resolution which are essential to confirm the very probable presence of amino acids in the gas in this and in other star-forming regions," Iglesias-Groth explained.

Ultimately, JWST could help scientists to gain a better understanding of the abundance of prebiotic molecules in the universe. In turn, this could help us gain new insight into the likelihood of discovering alien life out there in the cosmos.

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