Building blocks of life like glycine, other amino acids form in interstellar clouds: Study

Researchers have now found that glycine and other amino acids form in interstellar clouds much before they transform into new stars and planets. As per study authors, detection of glycine in the coma of comet 67P/ Churyumov-Gerasimenko and in samples returned to Earth from the Stardust mission suggest that amino acids, such as glycine, form long before stars. This is in sharp contrast to beliefs that glycine formation required energy, setting limits to the environment in which it can be formed.

According to a statement by the Queen Mary University of London, a team of international astrophysicists and astrochemical modellers based at the Astrophysics at Leiden Observatory, the Netherlands, showed that it is possible for glycine to form on the surface of icy dust grains, in the absence of energy through ‘dark chemistry’.

Speaking about the study, Dr Sergio Ioppolo, from Queen Mary University London and lead author of the study explained that dark chemistry refers to chemistry without the need of energetic radiation. According to him, they were able to recreate the conditions in dark interstellar clouds where cold dust particles are covered by thin layers of ice and processed by impacting atoms causing precursor species to break up and reactive intermediates to come together.

 Building blocks of life like glycine, other amino acids form in interstellar clouds: Study

Illustration of an interstellar cloud. Image Credit: Teun van der Zalm/Behance

During the study, scientists showed that methylamine, the precursor to glycine was formed in the coma of the comet 67P. Researchers used a unique ultra-high vacuum setup, equipped with a series of atomic beamlines and accurate diagnostic tools, to confirm that glycine could also be formed and that the presence of water ice was essential in this process.

Scientists were able to confirm the results using astrochemical models with Professor Herma Cuppen stating that it allowed them to show that low but substantial amounts of glycine can be formed in space with time.

Harold Linartz, the Director of the Laboratory for Astrophysics at Leiden Observatory added that the important conclusion is that molecules that are considered building blocks if life already form at a stage that is well before the start of star and planet formation.

The results of the study have been published in the journal Nature Astronomy.