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Basic Building Blocks of Life Found Around Distant Young Star

For the first time, astronomers have discovered complex organic molecules in a disk of gas and dust surrounding an alien star.
Image: Artist impression of protoplanetary disc surrounding young star MWC 480
Artist impression of the protoplanetary disc surrounding the young star MWC 480. ALMA has detected the complex organic molecule methyl cyanide in the outer reaches of the disc in the region where comets are believed to form.B. Saxton (NRAO/AUI/NSF)
/ Source: NBC News

For the first time, astronomers have discovered complex organic molecules, the basic building blocks for life, in a disk of gas and dust surrounding an alien star.

To the researchers' surprise, the organics found around a young star called MWC 480 are not only surviving but thriving in quantities slightly higher than those thought to have existed in the early solar system. The prolific amount of material reveals that Earth's solar system is not the only one to contain these complex molecules, suggesting that the ingredients required for life to evolve may exist throughout the universe. The scientists created a video tour of the star MWC 48 to showcase their discovery.

"The very rich organic chemistry present in the young solar system, as evidenced by cometary compositions, is far from unique," lead author Karin Öberg, of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Massachusetts, told by email.

"It thus seems likely that the prebiotic chemistry that took place in the solar system, including Earth, is also happening elsewhere," she said. [Related: Signs of Alien Life Will Be Found by 2025, NASA's Chief Scientist Says]

Located in the Taurus star-forming region 455 light-years away from Earth, the star MWC 480 is about twice the mass of the sun and shines nearly 10 times brighter. A disk of material surrounds the million-year-old star, but scientists have not observed any obvious signs of planet formation.

Using the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA), Öberg and her colleagues observed MWC 480, finding enough methyl cyanide (a complex carbon-based molecule) in the disk surrounding the star to fill all of Earth's oceans. They also found a supply of other complex carbon-based molecules.

Volatile elements such as cyanides boil away at high temperatures. Despite this fragility, they are thought to be necessary for life. The carbon-nitrogen bonds of cyanides are especially important, as they are essential to the formation of amino acids, which in turn are the building blocks for proteins.

While astronomers have found simple volatilesin disks around other stars, complex organic molecules such as those spotted by the team have remained more difficult to pin down in previously studied disks. These complex elements exist in interstellar clouds between stars, but scientists were unsure if the elements could survive the energetic formation of a young solar system, where radiation could break apart their bonds. But the material surrounding MWC 480 is awash in the building blocks of life.

The research appears online in the journal Nature.

— Nola Taylor Redd, contributor

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