Friday, March 1, 2013
March 1, 2013 - 8:47am by Julie Kent Cleveland Leader According to astronomers who've been using the National Science Foundation's Green Bank Telescope, they've discovered evidence of prebiotic molecules in interstellar space, the first time this kind of evidence has ever been uncovered. This finding could increase the odds of discovering life outside of our own solar system, say experts. One of the prebiotic molecules that was discovered by a team of Virginia astronomy students includes one called ethanamine, which is believed to produce adenine, one of the four nucleobases that form the rungs of DNA. Another more newly discovered molecule, cyanmethanimine, is believed to have a role in the formation of the amino acid alanine, which is a key process in biology. Researchers at laboratories at the University of Virginia and the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics measured radio emissions from cyanomethanimine and ethanamine. The frequency patterns from those molecules were then matched to publicly-available data produced by a survey conducted with the Green Bank Telescope from 2008 to 2011. The astronomers from the University of Virginia studied a giant gas cloud about 25,000 light-years from Earth located near the center of our Milky Way Galaxy. They say that the newly discovered interstellar molecules likely represent the intermediate stages in a multi-step chemical process that leads to the final biological molecule. The details of the actual chemical processes aren't yet clear, however the discovery gives astronomers new insight into how and where these processes occur. The researchers say that their discovery was made possible due to new technology that hastens the process of identifying the so-called "fingerprints" of cosmic chemicals. Until now, it has largely been impossible to identify the changing sequence, which is related to the ability to identify specific amounts of energy emitted or absorbed. New lab techniques have given astrochemists the ability to measure characteristic patterns of radio frequencies for specific molecules. Since they are now able to collect that information, astronomers now are able to match patterns that reveal evidence of certain molecules. The discovery is considered to be groundbreaking, however the researchers are cautioning not to read too much into it, saying that much more research is still needed. Nevertheless, the findings could increase the odds of finding life outside of our own solar system. If the building blocks of DNA are floating around out there in space, anything is possible. The study was a work in collaboration with University of Virginia professors Brooks Pate and Ed Murphy, and Remijan, and the program was funded by the National Science Foundation.
Posted by Patrick Morgan at 10:09 AM