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Max Planck researchers identify new organic molecule in space

Researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy (MPIfR) have detected an amino-acid-like molecule in space for the first time. As they report in a research paper in the Astronomy & Astrophysics journal, the molecule, amino acetonitrile, was discovered in a giant ga...
Max Planck researchers identify new organic molecule in space
Researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy (MPIfR) have detected an amino-acid-like molecule in space for the first time. As they report in a research paper in the Astronomy & Astrophysics journal, the molecule, amino acetonitrile, was discovered in a giant gas cloud named 'Large Molecule Heimat' near the galactic centre in the constellation Sagittarius.

Amino acetonitrile was successfully identified with the help of a 30-metre radio telescope in southern Spain. The find was then confirmed by two radio telescope arrays in France and Australia with a spatial resolution ten times higher than the original telescope.

The astronomers involved in the research had been investigating spectral lines emitted by complex molecules within the 'Large Molecule Heimat', when they made the discovery. Atoms and molecules emit light at very specific frequencies, which appear as characteristic lines in the radiation spectrum. By analysing these spectral lines, astronomers can determine the chemical composition of cosmic clouds.

However, the more complex a molecule is, the more intricate its radiation pattern becomes. This results in the molecules emitting many spectral lines. At the same time, these lines are very weak and therefore difficult to identify in the 'jungle' of spectral lines. 'Still, we were finally able to assign 51 very weak lines to the molecule amino acetonitrile,' says Arnaud Belloche, scientist at the MPIfR and lead author of the research paper.

While astronomers have managed to identify more than 140 molecules - mostly organic or carbon-based - in interstellar space since 1965, they have been on the lookout for the simplest amino acid, glycine, for a long time without success. Amino acetonitrile, however, the researchers think is likely to be a direct precursor of glycine.

'Finding amino acetonitrile has greatly extended our insight into the chemistry of dense, hot star-forming regions. I am sure we will be able to identify in the future many new, even more complex organic molecules in the interstellar gas. We already have several candidates,' adds Karl Menten, director at the MPIfR and head of the 'Millimetre and submillimetre' research group.

The search for interstellar amino acids is key to understanding the origin of life on Earth, as amino acids are the building blocks of proteins, without which the evolution of life would not have been possible. So far, amino acids have been found in meteorites on Earth, but not in interstellar space.

Source: Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy (MPIfR)

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