An international group of scientists have recently discovered that complex organic molecules, such as formamide, exist not only on Earth, but also in the regions of space where stars similar to our own Sun are formed.
Formamide (NH2CHO) – an organic molecule containing nitrogen, hydrogen, carbon and oxygen – is an excellent proxy for scientific endeavors to determine the origins of life and ascertain whether it exists elsewhere in the Universe.
This potent precursor of simple sugars, amino- and even nucleic acids has been found to be abundant in five out of ten surveyed protostellar clouds of gas and dust.
“We have detected formamide in five protosuns, which proves that this molecule (in all probability also true for our Solar System) is relatively abundant in molecular clouds and is formed in the very early stages of evolution towards a star and its planets,” explained Ana López Sepulcre, lead author of the study and researcher at the University of Tokyo in Japan.
The team has proposed that the reason why formamide has not been detected in the other five protostellar regions is that they are colder and less evolved, which suggests that the molecule may only be able to form above a certain temperature threshold.
In the study, published in Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, López and her colleagues suggest that the molecule is formed on the surface of dust grains of the molecular clouds from isocyanic acid (HNCO) by a process of hydrogenation, or the addition of hydrogen atoms.
“Formamide formed in this way remains attached to the dust grain until the temperature is high enough (in other words the protostar evolves) to cause its sublimation. And that is when we can detect it with radio telescopes.”
The discovery was made courtesy of the 30 meter telescope that belongs to the Institut de Radioastronomie Millimétrique (IRAM), located on Pico Veleta in the Spanish Sierra Nevada. Built in only four years (1980 to 1984) at an elevation of 2850 meter, it is one of today’s largest and most sensitive radio telescopes for tracing millimeter waves.
These findings are best looked at together with a different study published this month that detected methyl cyanide (CH3CN) – another prebiotic molecule – around the star-forming region MWC 480, which is already in the protoplanetary stage.
“This other study demonstrates that complex molecules survive until the later stages of stellar formation, and even continue forming afterwards,” noted López. Formamide, however, does have some advantages of its own, as it “contains oxygen (another essential element for life) and is a strong candidate as a precursor of prebiotic material, as not only amino acids can be formed from it (which could also be synthesized from CH3CN), but also nucleic acids and bases, or rather genetic material.”
López et. al. claim this proves the relevance of their study, as formamide – a significant biomolecule – “is already formed in regions where stars like our Sun are born in the very early stages and in relatively high amounts”.