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Molecules in space

Illustration shows the location of region L1157, where prebiotic compounds were found

NASA/JPL-CALTECH/UIUC ALTERADA POR EDGAR MENDOZA/UFRJIllustration shows the location of region L1157, where prebiotic compounds were foundNASA/JPL-CALTECH/UIUC ALTERADA POR EDGAR MENDOZA/UFRJ

In the jet emitted by a young star, an international team of astronomers has detected simple – but seemingly special – molecules. Their carbon, nitrogen, and oxygen atoms bind together in the same way as in proteins, complex molecules that are essential to life. “This shows that the molecules found in living beings can be produced from simpler compounds that exist in interstellar space, where physical and chemical conditions are drastically different from those on Earth,” explains Edgar Mendoza from the Valongo Observatory at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ), first author of the study accepted in August 2014 for publication in the journal MNRAS. Mendoza and his PhD advisor, Heloisa Boechat-Roberty, collaborated with four other astronomers in an observational study that revealed the presence of prebiotic molecules – i.e., molecules that can be precursors to life – in the stream of gas and dust emitted by a protostar named L1157-mm, located approximately 800 light-years from Earth. Based on data from the international telescope IRAM 30m, located in Spain, the team identified a relatively high abundance of prebiotic molecules, especially formamide, in a chemically complex region in which a jet of gas and dust interacts with the native, cold, dense gas that encases the protostellar object. Mendoza explains that no one yet knows exactly how these molecules are produced so efficiently in these shock zones. The group suspects that they are the result of chemical reactions on the frozen surface of grains of dust, a hypothesis they hope to test in 2015 at the Brazilian Synchrotron Light Laboratory in the city of Campinas.