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Interstellar Ice May Have Been the Origin of the Key Molecule for Life


Life’s building blocks may have originated in the frigid expanse of space, near developing stars and planets. Among these building blocks, amino acids, essential components of proteins, are thought by some scientists to have arrived on Earth via asteroids or meteorites. While organic molecules like carbonic acid have been detected in space, their precise formation remains uncertain.

Ralf Kaiser and his team at the University of Hawaii at Manoa have made a significant discovery, suggesting that a key amino acid, carbamic acid, could have been formed through reactions on ice clusters in deep space. This simple amino acid is a precursor to more complex compounds found in various enzymes.

To investigate the formation of carbamic acid in the extreme cold of space, the researchers simulated the conditions by subjecting the reactants, carbon dioxide and ammonia, to temperatures as low as 5 kelvin (-268°C). Their experiments revealed that at 62 K, carbon dioxide and ammonia combined to create carbamic acid. Additionally, ammonium carbamate, a compound involved in processing urea, was formed at 39 K, providing support for the idea that life’s foundational elements might have been delivered to Earth from space.

These conditions closely resemble those found in molecular clouds near young stars and planets, suggesting that the origins of carbamic acid and ammonium carbamate could be traced back to ice formations in these regions.

The team speculates that these compounds could have been integrated into meteorites or asteroids, carrying them into our solar system or others. This discovery is expected to assist astronomers in their search for these amino acids in space, potentially using instruments like the James Webb Space Telescope.

Kaiser envisions that identifying the locations and conditions under which these molecular precursors form can provide insights into potential areas where life may have emerged or could exist.

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