Building blocks of life may have formed on dust in the cold vacuum of space

Far from any galaxy, icy grains of dust in deep space may be able to form organic molecules, a new preprint study finds.

A wispy blue cloud of molecular gas glows from the light of distant stars in this James Webb Space Telescope image

Complex organic molecules, like those that act as the building blocks of life, may form in the vast, cold depths of space on tiny grains of dust, a new study suggests.

These enriched dust grains are then swept up into newly forming stars and solar systems, eventually becoming part of planets like Earth. The new study shows that the complex chemistry that fuels life doesn’t require an injection of energy or an exotic process to get going.

Galaxies are great at building the fundamental elements. Hydrogen and helium have been around since the first few minutes of the Big Bang. Sun-like stars fuse hydrogen into more helium, and near the ends of their lives these stars turn that helium into carbon and oxygen. Larger stars keep the fusion chain going, producing potassium, nickel, iron and more. And lastly, titanic supernova explosions fill out the rest of the periodic table.

Related: NASA reveals 1st sample collected from potentially hazardous asteroid Bennu to public — and it may contain the seeds of life

Some elements bind together easily and naturally. For example, hydrogen and oxygen are both very common and enjoy binding together, even in the depths of space, making water an incredibly common molecule. But creating a living creature requires far more complex molecules than just water. Now, many of those molecules on Earth are made as byproducts of biological reactions, but for life to get started on our planet billions of years ago, there must have been at least some complexity in that primordial soup to get going.

Samples collected from asteroid Ryugu were rich in organic molecules, NASA and international researchers found.  (Image credit: Yada, et al.; Nature Astronomy)

Astronomers have recently identified complex organic molecules — molecules rich in carbon and oxygen — in many unexpected places. Saturn’s moon Titan contains vast seas of hydrocarbons. Dust grains pulled from comets and asteroids are rich in organic molecules. We’ve even observed traces of organic molecules embedded deep within interstellar gas clouds.

Now, in a new paper, uploaded Oct. 23 to the preprint server arXiv, a team of astronomers is discovering the origins of these organic molecules. Unlike previous work, which looks to higher-energy events and locations as a source of synthesizing new molecules, the team examined whether the conditions of deep space would be enough to create the molecules.

window.sliceComponents = window.sliceComponents || {};

externalsScriptLoaded.then(() => {
window.reliablePageLoad.then(() => {
var componentContainer = document.querySelector(“#slice-container-newsletterForm-articleInbodyContent-GG7Xuvotf6vz8zPVpHJWs6”);

if (componentContainer) {
var data = {“layout”:”inbodyContent”,”header”:”Sign up for the Live Science daily newsletter now”,”tagline”:”Get the worldu2019s most fascinating discoveries delivered straight to your inbox.”,”formFooterText”:”By submitting your information you agree to the Terms & Conditions and Privacy Policy and are aged 16 or over.”,”successMessage”:{“body”:”Thank you for signing up. You will receive a confirmation email shortly.”},”failureMessage”:”There was a problem. Please refresh the page and try again.”,”method”:”POST”,”inputs”:[{“type”:”hidden”,”name”:”NAME”},{“type”:”email”,”name”:”MAIL”,”placeholder”:”Your Email Address”,”required”:true},{“type”:”hidden”,”name”:”NEWSLETTER_CODE”,”value”:”XLS-D”},{“type”:”hidden”,”name”:”LANG”,”value”:”EN”},{“type”:”hidden”,”name”:”SOURCE”,”value”:”60″},{“type”:”hidden”,”name”:”COUNTRY”},{“type”:”checkbox”,”name”:”CONTACT_OTHER_BRANDS”,”label”:{“text”:”Contact me with news and offers from other Future brands”}},{“type”:”checkbox”,”name”:”CONTACT_PARTNERS”,”label”:{“text”:”Receive email from us on behalf of our trusted partners or sponsors”}},{“type”:”submit”,”value”:”Sign me up”,”required”:true}],”endpoint”:””,”analytics”:[{“analyticsType”:”widgetViewed”}],”ariaLabels”:{}};

var triggerHydrate = function() {
window.sliceComponents.newsletterForm.hydrate(data, componentContainer);

if (window.lazyObserveElement) {
window.lazyObserveElement(componentContainer, triggerHydrate);
} else {
}).catch(err => console.log(‘Hydration Script has failed for newsletterForm-articleInbodyContent-GG7Xuvotf6vz8zPVpHJWs6 Slice’, err));
}).catch(err => console.log(‘Externals script failed to load’, err));

The team ran computer simulations of the chemical relationships between elements found in the depths of space. There, tiny grains of dust get cold enough that they enshroud themselves in a layer of ice. Floating among this dust are carbon atoms, ejected from stellar explosions thousands of light-years away. The team found that the carbon atoms quickly react with frozen water, forming a simple molecule containing carbon, oxygen and hydrogen, designated as carbonous acid. Because this molecule has open electron spots, it is highly reactive and immediately begins combining and reacting with other elements and molecules in the dust.

For example, the reactive carbons can find nitrogen to make the base for cyanides, or oxygen to make carbon monoxide. These can then go on to form methanol, considered the “mother” of organic molecules, the researchers wrote. Other reactions can produce ethanol, methanimine and methanediol, which play a variety of roles in biological chemistry.

In other words, all that’s needed to jump-start life is incredibly cold atoms interacting with each other in the vacuum of space.


Are Wildlife Documentaries an Invasion of Privacy?

Do animals have a right to privacy? It’s not something I’ve ever thought of, I [...]

Climate Change on Exhibit

Feedloader (Clickability) Washington, D.C. is the best city for museum-going, of course, but sometimes you [...]

How much does it cost to build a concept car?

A lot of effort goes into producing a concept car. So exactly how much does [...]

World’s Oldest Known Figurative Paintings Discovered in Borneo Cave

This painting of a cattle-like animal in a Borneo cave has been dated at at [...]

Boa Constrictor Diets, Habitats and Mating Strategies

The boa constrictor is a large, nonvenomous snake known for its massive size and ability [...]

Researchers develop a novel dry-powder inhaled vaccine platform

A new “nano-micro composite” delivery concept for inhaled vaccine: it combines biodegradable microcapsules with protein [...]

Getting to the Bottom of How Apes Think

Nolan Pelletier Sometimes the way to crack a tough scientific problem is to put on [...]

Chemical functionalized noble metal nanocrystals for electrocatalysis

The electrocatalytic performance of noble metal nanocrystals not only depends on their morphology, component and [...]