June 20, 2021

The key molecule at the origin of life found for the first time in space


Heiles Cloud 2, which is part of the Taurus Molecular Cloud (TMC).

Heiles Cloud 2, which is part of the Taurus Molecular Cloud (TMC).
Grand Mesa Observatory, Colorado (USA) / Terry Hancock and Tom Masterson

Is named ethanolamine, it is the key molecule at the origin of life because it contains the four fundamental chemical elements (oxygen, carbon, hydrogen and nitrogen) and an international group of researchers has detected it for the first time in the space.

The research has been led by researchers from the Astrobiology Center (CAB), a joint center of the Higher Council for Scientific Research and the National Institute of Aerospace Technology of the Ministry of Defense, and the discovery has been made in a molecular cloud located in the center of the galaxy.

Ethanolamine is part of a group of molecules that make up cell membranes, the research centers stressed today after the publication of the results in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) in the United States.

The discovery will help to understand the evolution of the membranes of the first cells, a crucial issue in the study of the origin of life, according to the scientist Victor Manuel Rivilla, from the Center for Astrobiology, who has led an international and multidisciplinary research that has involved astrophysicists, astrochemists and biochemists.

In statements to EFE, Rivilla has influenced and valued that it is the first time that this molecule has been detected in space, and has stressed that the finding highlights that “the precursors of life” are available in space.

“The basic ingredients for life are there“, has stated Víctor Manuel Rivilla, who has pointed out the possibility that from these” ingredients “life has been formed or can be created in other places of the Universe in the same way that it has been formed and created on Earth.

But it has also influenced that those life forms that could have been created from those “precursors” in other places in space do not have to be similar to the life forms that are known on Earth.

Ethanolamine is part of a group of molecules (phospholipids) that were crucial in the origin and early evolution of life on Earth, and its discovery has been possible thanks to radio telescope 30 meters in diameter installed at the Pico Veleta (Granada) and the 40-meter one at the Yebes Observatory (Guadalajara).

“Our results suggest that ethanolamine is synthesized in a very efficient way in interstellar space in molecular clouds where new stars and planetary systems are formed,” the principal investigator highlighted.

The appearance of cell membranes, research centers have highlighted, represents a very important milestone in the origin of life on Earth, since they are in charge of maintaining stable conditions inside the cells, protecting both the genetic material and the metabolic machinery.

Comet and meteor bombardment

“We know that a wide repertoire of prebiotic molecules could have reached early Earth through the bombardment of comets and meteorites“, explained the researcher Izaskun Jiménez-Serra, from the Center for Astrobiology and co-author of the study.

The researcher explained that scientists’ estimates suggest that “around a thousand billion liters of ethanolamine could have been transferred to the primitive Earth by meteorite impacts” and has observed that this amount is equivalent to the total volume of Lake Victoria, the largest great of Africa.

Researchers have found that the value of the abundance in the interstellar medium of ethanolamine relative to that of water suggests that ethanolamine was probably formed in space and could be transferred to meteorites later.

According Carlos Briones placeholder image, also co-author of the study, “the availability of ethanolamine in the early Earth, together with fatty acids or alcohols, may have contributed to the evolution of primitive cell membranes“, which has – he underlined – important implications not only for the study of the origin of life on Earth, but also on other habitable planets and satellites within the Solar System or anywhere in the Universe.

Improving the sensitivity of radio telescopes will allow increasingly complex molecules to be detected in space and that could give rise to the three basic molecular components of life: lipids (which form membranes), RNA and DNA nucleic acids (which contain and transmit genetic information), and proteins (which are responsible for the activity metabolic), the researchers have stressed.

“Understanding how these prebiotic seeds are formed in space could be key to understanding the origin of life,” concluded Víctor Manuel Rivilla.

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