NASA/European Space Agency
Off World

New Molecular Discovery Could Help Us Determine How Life Was Formed

Scientists discover a complex molecule in deep space that could help understand the origins of life and the possibilities of life elsewhere in the universe.

Patrick CaughillJune 18th 2016

For the first time, scientists have discovered a molecule outside of our galaxy that may help us understand how life was formed. Their findings were published in Science

The discovery of the propylene oxide molecule is the first evidence of chirality in a molecule found in interstellar space. Chirality is a geometric property of a molecule where molecules exist in mirror images of each other. These asymmetrical molecules can be thought of in terms of “handedness.” Chemist Brett McGuire of the National Radio Astronomy Observatory in Virginia stated “This is the first molecule detected in interstellar space that has the property of chirality, making it a pioneering leap forward in our understanding of how prebiotic molecules are made in the Universe and the effects they may have on the origins of life.”

The discovery was made by observing the giant gas cloud Sagittarius B2 using the Green Bank Telescope (GBT) in West Virginia with support from the CSIRO’s Parkes radio telescope in Australia.

Photo Credit: ESO/APEX & MSX/IPAC/NASA
Photo Credit: ESO/APEX & MSX/IPAC/NASA

This is a key discovery that could lead to understanding the process of how a chiral molecule’s handedness is determined. This would shed light onto the mysteries of the earliest building blocks of life. Scientists believe that complex molecules like propylene oxide are able to be formed in gas clouds by small molecules being linked through the interaction of grains of dust and mantles of ice. These linked molecules then are released upon the evaporation of the ice and again begin to react with molecules in the cloud.

Chiral molecules have previously been found inside of comets. The discovery of propylene oxide in isolation will allow scientists to study chirality before the molecules become attached to meteorites and comets that could initiate life building chemical reactions.

Keep up. Subscribe to our daily newsletter.

I understand and agree that registration on or use of this site constitutes agreement to its User Agreement and Privacy Policy
Next Article
////////////