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Clues to the Origin of Life Seen in Interstellar Antifreeze

Astronomers have detected the chemical commonly used as antifreeze near the center of the Milky Way Galaxy, about 26,000 light years from the closest auto supply store. The sugar¿s location within Sagittarius, a massive interstellar cloud, reinforces the view that such clouds-- vast collections of gas and dust--may foster complex chemical reactions. Indeed, the discovery suggests that even more complex sugars, such as those necessary for life as we know it, could be produced in space. A report detailing these findings will appear in a forthcoming issue of the Astrophysical Journal Letters.

Using data collected by the 12-Meter Radio Telescope at Kitt Peak, Arizona, Jan M. Hollis of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center and colleagues analyzed the radio emissions of molecules within Sagittarius. As they move about within interstellar clouds, molecules give off radio waves at specific frequencies. Because each molecule has its own radio signature, astronomers can identify the source of a set of radio waves based upon where its signal falls within the electromagnetic spectrum. (Previously, the group used this technique to detect glycolaldehyde, another simple sugar.)

The new work hints at the possibility of one day uncovering complex molecules like ribose, a fundamental ingredient of RNA, in space. Such evidence would fit neatly with the hypothesis that complex molecules from space seeded life on Earth. Says study coauthor Philip R. Jewell of the National Radio Astronomy Observatory: "The discovery further demonstrates how important interstellar chemistry may be to understanding the creation of biological molecules on the early Earth."

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