Researchers brewed up concoctions of organics — carbon-containing compounds — in icy conditions in the lab, then blasted them with radiation akin to that streaming from stars. They found that the organics morphed into the types of molecules that could have jump-started life on Earth.

"The very basic steps needed for the evolution of life may have started in the coldest regions of our universe," lead author Murthy Gudipati, of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, Calif., said in a statement. "We were surprised to see organic chemistry brewing up on ice, at these very cold temperatures in our lab."

The origin of life's building blocks

Many scientists think that the basic ingredients of life on Earth, including water and organic compounds, ultimately got their start on particles in the freezing outer reaches of the solar system. These particles glommed onto comets and asteroids, then found their way to our planet via long-ago impacts.