Key ingredient of life found circling infant stars

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Traces of a chemical element necessary for life have been detected near the formation of stars similar to our Sun, from which our planetary system evolved.

The element in question is methyl isocyanate. This is the very first detection of this prebiotic molecule carried out near solar-type proto-stars.

This family of organic molecules participates in the synthesis of peptides and amino acids which, in the form of proteins, constitute the basic elements of life as we know it.

Two European teams of astronomers participated in this work. The detection was made possible by the ALMA (large (sub-) millimeter network of the Atacama) telescope in Chile.

This artist's image offers a very detailed view of the structure of these molecules.   Photo: ESO / L. Calçada
This artist’s image offers a very detailed view of the structure of these molecules. Photo: ESO / L. Calçada

This discovery allows astrophysicists to better understand the conditions of emergence of life on Earth. In fact, the Earth and the other planets of the solar system have been formed from the remains of the solar nebula. The study of solar-type proto-stars can thus inform scientists about the conditions that prevailed in the formation of our system, more than 4.5 billion years ago.

The element was observed within the multiple star system known as IRAS 16293-2422.

This system of stars seems rich in discoveries! After detecting sugars, we have just found methyl isocyanate.

Niels Ligterink, Sackler Laboratory

The traces of this chemical element have been localized within the dense and warm internal regions of the gas and dust cocoon that surrounds the young stars in the very first stage of their existence.

IRAS 16293-2422 is a multiple system composed of very young stars, located some 400 light years from Earth.

The results indicate that there is methyl isocyanate gas around each of these young stars.

“Detecting these molecules is a first step, and understanding their training process is an additional step,” says Ligterink.

Our laboratory experiments indicate that methyl isocyanate can form on ice particles at very low temperatures, similar to those in the interstellar medium.

Niels Ligterink

This knowledge suggests that this molecule (and thus the basis of peptide bonds) is certainly present in the environment close to most young stars of the solar type.

The details of this work are published in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society .

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