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Space Ingredients to DNA Discovered in Interstellar Space! Cosmic Origin of Life

Ingredients to DNA Discovered in Interstellar Space! Cosmic Origin of Life

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First Posted: Feb 28, 2013 01:16 PM EST
Green Bank Telescope
Basic chemicals that are key to DNA have been found in interstellar space. The Green Bank Telescope and some of the molecules it has discovered. (Photo : Bill Saxton, NRAO/AUI/NSF)

Ever wondered where life may have originated? It turns out that some basic chemicals that are key to DNA may be located in space. Researchers have discovered an important pair of prebiotic molecules in interstellar space.

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Using the National Science Foundation's Green Bank Telescope (GBT), researchers studied a giant cloud of gases located about 25,000 light-years away from Earth, near the center of our Milky Way Galaxy. They used new technology to speed the process of identifying the "fingerprints" of cosmic chemicals located in this cloud. Since each molecule has a specific set of rotational states, and since it emits or absorbs a specific amount of energy when it changes from one state to another, scientists were able to identify these molecules by using the GBT. During these state changes, the GBT could detect radio waves at specific frequencies which it then relayed to the researchers. The scientists then measured the characteristic patterns of these radio frequencies for specific molecules.

What did they find exactly? Scientists were able to discover a molecule that is thought to be a precursor to a key component in DNA and another that may have a role in the formation of the amino acid alanine.

In particular, one of the molecules is called cyanomethanimine, which is one step in the process that chemists believe produces adenine. Adenine is one of four nucleobases that form the "rungs" seen on the double-helix, ladder-like structure of DNA. The other molecule, ethanamine, plays a role in forming alanine, which is one of the twenty amino acids in the genetic code.

Actually finding these molecules in space is a huge discovery for the scientists. It could give an explanation as to how life was formed on early Earth.

"Finding these molecules in an interstellar gas cloud means that important building blocks for DNA and amino acids can 'seed' newly-formed planets with the chemical precursors for life," said Anthony Remijan of the National Radio Astronomy Observatory in a press release.

Previously, scientists had thought that these processes took place in the very tenuous gas between the stars, yet the new findings show that instead, they take place on the surfaces of ice grains in interstellar space.

That said, these molecules are merely intermediate stages in a multi-step chemical process that eventually leads to a biological molecule. Currently, the scientists are undergoing further experiments to better understand how these reactions work. Yet it could be that these tiny grains could potentially hold the key to life on different planets.

Check out the video below to find out more, courtesy of the National Radio Astronomy Observatory.

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