A mosaic image of the Crab Nebula, remnant of an old supernova explosion or otherwise said, a powerful source of cosmic radiation. Credit: NASA, ESA, J. Hester and A. Loll/Arizona State University

Building Blocks of Life Discovered in Interstellar Space Change Our Understanding of the Universe

We now know that methylamine and glycine can form even in extreme conditions in interstellar space.


No one knows the exact reason and origin of life on Earth. But in order for this to happen, some simple chemical building blocks are needed.

Many scientists claim that the Earth’s violent past, with its massive volcanoes and regular meteor showers, has played a major role in the formation of these building blocks. In another stumping discovery, scientists reveal that the building blocks of life do not need a planet or a star to form.


The Building Blocks of Life and Dark Chemistry

The simplest amino acid and an extremely important building block of life - Glycine. Credit: American Chemical Society
The simplest amino acid and an extremely important building block of life – Glycine. Credit: American Chemical Society

The focus of the team of astrophysicists for this study was glycine. If you are unaware, glycine is the simplest amino acid known to man and now we know that it can form in deep space.

Furthermore, glycine is also a vital building block of life which is what makes this discovery truly astonishing. If we go back a few weeks, it was believed that glycine formation required energetic radiation. Now we know that it can form in space under extreme conditions through something called dark chemistry.

Explained in the simplest manner, think of chemistry without the energetic radiation. Anyhow, this study was stimulated by the detection of glycine in samples from the space mission Stardust. Scientists located the amino acid in the comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko.

What this presence suggests is that this significant building block of life could form without the need of a star or planets as it was thought before. If glycine could form independently in interstellar space, this ultimately hints at the possibility that other important building blocks of life could also have the same ability.


And what follows is the fact that once prebiotic molecules exist, they can stimulate the formation of more complex structures on the glycine backbone. If you follow my logic, you should know where I am leading you to. If these molecular inventories exist on comets, this means that there is a chance that they may reach other planets with suitable conditions for life and… well, there could be other planets with life on them just like Earth.

Scientific Experiments and Simulations

All experiments in the study were conducted in strict laboratory conditions ensuring the absolute safety of all members. Results from previous laboratory experiments suggested that interstellar ice and ratiation were needed in order for glycine to form. At the same time, when the radiation is too high, it could do quite the opposite – destroy amino acids. Well, the team of astrophysicists found an alternative way for the formation.

Sergio Loppolo, leader of the scientific team had this to say about the conducted experiment.

“In the laboratory, we were able to simulate the conditions in dark interstellar clouds where cold dust particles are covered by thin layers of ice and subsequently processed by impacting atoms causing precursor species to fragment and reactive intermediates to recombine.”

To explain the series of experiments, in short, we need to mention methylamine as it was the focal point of all tests. It is also one of the amine precursors of the building block of life in question – glycine.

First, it was proven that methylamine could form in interstellar conditions without the need of energetic radiation. Just to mention, it was also discovered in the samples from comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko.

Using ice enriched with methylamine and putting it through a series of reactions, the team discovered that the chemical reactions did, in fact, form grycine.


What can we make of this discovery?

In short, we now know that certain building blocks of life can form in space without the need of a planet or a star. As I mentioned above, this hints at the possibility that other prebiotic molecules could also exist in space. Moreover, there might even be an abundance of them, especially on icy planets.

You can read the entire scientific paper on the subject HERE.

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Written by Vladislav Tchakarov

Hello, my name is Vladislav and I am glad to have you here on Curiosmos. As a history student, I have a strong passion for history and science, and the opportunity to research and write in this field on a daily basis is a dream come true.

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