“Protosuns Found Teeming with Prebiotic Molecules” –The Precursors to Life

Aug 11, 2015

One of science’s greatest challenges is learning about the origin of life and its precursor molecules. Formamide (NH2CHO) is an excellent candidate for helping to search for answers as it contains four essential elements (nitrogen, hydrogen, carbon and oxygen), and can synthesize amino acids, carbohydrates, nucleic acids and other key compounds for living organisms.

Complex organic molecules such as formamide, from which sugars, amino acids and even nucleic acids essential for life can be made, already appear in the regions where stars similar to our Sun are born. Astrophysicists from Spain and other countries have detected this biomolecule in five protostellar clouds and propose that it forms on tiny dust grains.
However, this molecule is also abundant in space, mainly in molecular clouds or the concentrations of gas and dust where stars are born. This has been confirmed by an international team of researchers, including Spanish investigators, after searching for formamide in ten star-forming regions.

“We have detected formamide in five protosuns, which proves that this molecule (in all probability also true for our Solar System) is relatively abundant in molecular clouds and is formed in the very early stages of evolution towards a star and its planets,” explains Ana López Sepulcre, lead author of the study and researcher at the University of Tokyo (Japan).


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24 comments on ““Protosuns Found Teeming with Prebiotic Molecules” –The Precursors to Life

  • The ingredients for life seem to be abundant and spread throughout the cosmos. Exactly how those ingredients interact to produce a self-replicating system of molecules is still unclear. It seems reasonable that if the right conditions are present those building blocks will eventually produce living systems.



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  • Eamonn Shute
    Aug 13, 2015 at 6:13 am

    I don’t see anything very important or surprising about this. Carbon is a very reactive element, so we would expect carbon compounds to be common.

    I think it is the size and complexity of the molecules which is significant, along with the radiation powered mechanisms and temperatures which create them.



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  • Alan

    Do you think it is fair to make the statement, ‘wherever the conditions are right there WILL be life’, albeit those conditions are still to be confirmed? In my mind, these sort of discoveries say exactly that and make purpose to life even more redundant.

    Lepton, above, has sort of said the same thing.



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  • Olgun
    Aug 13, 2015 at 8:55 am

    Do you think it is fair to make the statement, ‘wherever the conditions are right there WILL be life’, albeit those conditioned are still to be confirmed?

    It is to some extent a circular statement – a bit like asking, ” If the conditions for a chemical reaction are right, will it occur?”

    The issue is that we do not know what the “right” condition or the the “right” series of conditions are!

    In addition to the sequence of reactions, there is also the time scale, which probably involves “deep time”, and a wide range of temperatures, physical environments, and radiation levels.



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  • Yep! I can fully appreciate that.

    I suppose what I was trying to say is that given the skies are full of galaxies that have a certain inevitability to form given the rules of physics and suns have their inevitable beginning and end then, it is also inevitable that life is part of that process and is…well…inevitable.

    I appreciate I might be over thinking this.



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  • Olgun
    Aug 13, 2015 at 9:16 am

    I suppose what I was trying to say is that given the skies are full of galaxies that have a certain inevitability to form given the rules of physics and suns have their inevitable beginning and end then, it is also inevitable that life is part of that process and is…well…inevitable.

    Galaxies have a considerable diversity of form, size, type, and chemical composition. They [like solar systems], have habitable zones and life-hostile zones.

    http://www.technologyreview.com/view/424638/astronomers-publish-new-map-of-galactic-habitable-zone/

    Astronomers Publish New Map of Galactic Habitable Zone

    The new map suggests that around 1.2 percent of all stars may have been capable of supporting complex life at some point in the history of the galaxy.

    The temperature range I referred to varies from from near absolute zero, where atoms stick together into molecules, because they lack the energy to separate, right through the range of Earth like temperatures, where water boils somewhere between approximately 50°c (at high altitude), and 400°c (in deep hydrothermal vents), and on up into the thousands or millions of degrees found in stars.



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  • Olgun
    Aug 13, 2015 at 9:16 am

    Here’s NASA’s take on this:

    https://astrobiology.nasa.gov/articles/2001/5/18/galactic-habitable-zones/

    Our Milky Way Galaxy is unusual in that it is one of the most massive galaxies in the nearby universe. Our Solar System also seems to have qualities that make it rather unique. According to Guillermo Gonzalez, Assistant Professor of Astronomy at the University of Washington, these qualities make the Sun one of the few stars in the Galaxy capable of supporting complex life.

    For one thing, the Sun is composed of the right amount of “metals.” (Astronomers refer to all elements heavier than hydrogen and helium as “metals.”) Moreover, the Sun’s circular orbit about the galactic center is just right; through a combination of factors it manages to keep out of the way of the Galaxy’s dangerous spiral arms. Our Solar System is also far enough away from the galactic center to not have to worry about disruptive gravitational forces or too much radiation.



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  • Science does not work on the basis of faith. We need proof, evidence, cause, effect, understanding.

    Your statement is the starting point, not the end point of scientific exploration. There are more questions to be answered, such as the conditions required to form said compound are what give us the hypothesis that the compound is likely to exist, there are lots of carbon compounds, not all are easily formed in nature.

    Additionally, we must confirm our hypothesis before we can utilize it in extended research. We can confirm it in a lab to show those conditions can cause the element, but we still need to confirm it in space to prove that our formulas and lab conditions were an accurate representation of reality.

    To better expand on the logic of it can therefor it must.
    Earth has tons of H2O and tons of O2. Hydrogen peroxide (H2O2) on the other hand is far less common, even though the parts to make it are abundant.

    If our hypothesis requires exotic or extremely rare conditions to work, it has major issues. Technically a computer can form naturally in nature if enough of the right conditions and chain of events take place. However, the likelihood is so unlikely that we do expect to see those conditions a single time in a nearly infinite timeline. However, if we assume we are the natural mechanism for obtaining computers, we only need to prove intelligent life is not so rare that it would take a nearly infinite amount of time to appear.



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  • Alan4: The issue is that we do not know what the “right” condition or the the “right” series of conditions are! In addition to the sequence of reactions, there is also the time scale, which probably involves “deep time”, and a wide range of temperatures, physical environments, and radiation levels.

    Are we at a point in cosmic history where we are trapped in a good news -bad news scenario? Homo sapiens have evolved to explore the universe through science and technology thereby accumulating huge quantities of information that describe its forms and functions. On the other hand, we have moved into unfathomable distances and time away from the objects we must examine at close range if we are to have definite answers. The odds favor the possibility of complex life forms living on planets or moons within our solar system subject to verification by space probes. Speculations about life on other planets orbiting other stars in the Milky Way galaxy would seem to defy any measurement (outside of probability) that would approach anything like empirical evidence -putting the critter under a microscope so to speak. The milky Way is 100,000 light years across. Even a star as “close” as 10 light years away could never be reached by a device, however fine tuned, that could detect the outline of an actual life form. ( I may sound like a sweet old woman I knew back in 1969 who said upon hearing of the moon landing, “Hogwash! no one done ever gone to the moon!)



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  • Melvin
    Aug 13, 2015 at 5:54 pm

    On the other hand, we have moved into unfathomable distances and time away from the objects we must examine at close range if we are to have definite answers.

    Many answers are obtainable by remote sensing and techniques such as spectroscopy.

    The odds favor the possibility of complex life forms living on planets or moons within our solar system subject to verification by space probes.

    We do not know that at present.

    Speculations about life on other planets orbiting other stars in the Milky Way galaxy would seem to defy any measurement (outside of probability) that would approach anything like empirical evidence -putting the critter under a microscope so to speak.

    The indirect evidence of life, can be detected at great distances. We do not know what may be possible as technologies advance.

    The milky Way is 100,000 light years across. Even a star as “close” as 10 light years away could never be reached by a device, however fine tuned, that could detect the outline of an actual life form.

    The evidence, is that if humans apply themselves and fund interstellar probes, a probe could reach a star-system 10 light years away within decades or centuries of the present time.

    http://www.icarusinterstellar.org/project-dragonfly-sail-to-the-stars/

    Humanity has existed for over 200,000 years. It is only about 200 years since we entered the age of industrialization, and in the last 50 years, we have discovered ways of going to the stars [1]. However, the approaches conceived required spaceships the size of a tanker and massive space infrastructures. Project Dragonfly is the first design study for an interstellar mission based on a small, laser-propelled spacecraft. In the following, the background of Project Dragonfly and the rationale for the Project Dragonfly Design Competition and crowdfunding campaign are explained more.

    Many previous approaches for going to the stars have depended on extremely large and heavy spacecraft, [such as Project Daedalus and Project Icarus] based on propulsion systems like nuclear fusion or antimatter. Existing concepts of fusion-propelled spacecraft are as heavy as skyscrapers. Accelerating all the fuel with the ship until it is exhausted is actually not a very efficient way to get to the stars. Project Dragonfly aims at a different approach: The basic idea is not new – it is, in fact, very old. For centuries, humans have travelled the seas using sailing ships. We also plan to use a sail. But a sail which is made of an extremely thin reflective surface. This sail would be illuminated by a laser beam from a laser power station somewhere in the Solar System [2]. The photons of the laser beam push the sail, just as the wind pushes the sail of a sailing ship. And through this push to the sail, the spacecraft slowly accelerates.

    However, as the spacecraft does not use any on-board fuel, it can accelerate to very high velocities in the range of several percent of the speed of light. Furthermore, Project Dragonfly builds upon the recent trend of miniaturization of space systems. Just a few decades ago, thousands of people were involved in developing the first satellite, Sputnik. Today, a handful of university students are able to build a satellite with the same capability as Sputnik, one that is much cheaper and weighs hundreds of times less than the first satellite. Recently, NASA announced a prize for the development of interplanetary CubeSats.

    ( I may sound like a sweet old woman I knew back in 1969 who said upon hearing of the moon landing, “Hogwash! no one done ever gone to the moon!)

    That is usual when presenting an argument from personal incredulity.



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  • 14
    Pinball1970 says:

    Alan4discussion
    Aug 13, 2015 at 6:57 am

    I think it is the size and complexity of the molecules which is significant, along with the radiation powered mechanisms and temperatures which create them.

    There have been quite few papers on Murchison meteorite that fell in the 1960’s

    Was this the first indicator that complex organics can form naturally in space/space dust?



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  • Pinball1970
    Aug 14, 2015 at 7:58 am

    Was this the first indicator that complex organics can form naturally in space/space dust?

    There have been a whole series of indications. I am uncertain which was first.

    I think it is the space dust being formed, or collecting organic molecules on its surface, from irradiated atoms at near absolute zero – both in the Solar System in nebulae.

    At near absolute zero and in near total vacuum, at near zero gravity, atoms drift together under gravitational attraction, and lack the heat energy to bounce apart, hence, complex molecules are assembled as they “stick together”, with radiation providing the energy for reactions where additional energy is needed.



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  • @ Alan4: Many answers are obtainable by remote sensing and techniques such as spectroscopy.

    My comment implied recognition of information obtained through such devices. But information is limited to what the technology can gather and successfully transmit. The information remains remote and still cannot achieve close observation of objects and their detailed properties.

    The odds favor the possibility of complex life forms living on planets or moons within our solar system subject to verification by space probes.

    We do not know that at present.

    I did not say that we know that. I said the odds favor -perhaps I should have qualified – simple life forms existing somewhere in our solar system based on hospitable conditions we have discussed thoroughly on other threads. Thorough surface probing over time that is now technologically feasible should provide answers.

    The indirect evidence of life, can be detected at great distances. We do not know what may be possible as technologies advance.

    I generally support the first assertion but “indirect evidence..detected at great distances” are grounds for skepticism. We are unlikely to get close enough to the phenomena to accumulate a body of specific evidence. We are left on the roller coaster of speculation. The second sentence merely says: “Maybe – Maybe Not.”

    The evidence, is that if humans apply themselves and fund interstellar probes, a probe could reach a star-system 10 light years away within decades or centuries of the present time.

    “Decades” may be feasible but “centuries” seem out of the question. Within 100 -year time frames even if “something” did not almost certainly shut down the probe, its technology would be so obsolete on arrival as to render it useless. Project Dragonfly explores the potential efficiencies of miniaturization, though not considered, perhaps nanotechnology blossoming in a transhuman future. Miniature probes like huge chemical or nuclear fusion rockets have drawbacks but the same can be said for small vehicles with tiny devices. There is such a thing as too small especially for electronic devices designed to receive, accumulate, comprehensively analyze and synthesize, and transmit data. Transmissions at a distance can lose clarity, detail along with restrictions on memory. Comprehensible “content” can be wiped out.

    The incorrigible challenge remains that of cosmic time and distance.



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  • Melvin
    Aug 14, 2015 at 3:54 pm

    The odds favor the possibility of complex life forms living on planets or moons within our solar system subject to verification by space probes.

    We do not know that at present.

    I did not say that we know that. I said the odds favor -perhaps I should have qualified – simple life forms existing somewhere in our solar system based on hospitable conditions we have discussed thoroughly on other threads.

    We do not know the odds, or if the conditions are favourable to life.
    There have been speculations as to which are the more likely and less likely places to look.

    The evidence, is that if humans apply themselves and fund interstellar probes, a probe could reach a star-system 10 light years away within decades or centuries of the present time.

    “Decades” may be feasible but “centuries” seem out of the question. Within 100 -year time frames even if “something” did not almost certainly shut down the probe, its technology would be so obsolete on arrival as to render it useless.

    My reference to centuries was about the time to develop and launch the probe. Such a probe would probably take decades to arrive at a nearby star system.

    Project Dragonfly explores the potential efficiencies of miniaturization,

    While they did mention cube-sats, I think the term “miniaturisation” is relative to the alternative proposed nuclear or fusion driven interstellar systems, which would be the size of a super-tanker! The reduction in size and mass, is achieved by removing the primary power unit and fuel from the probe.

    Here are some ideas! Some are practical with further development, some are science fiction.

    http://www.space.com/17619-how-interstellar-travel-works-infographic.html?li_source=LI&li_medium=more-from-space&li_campaign=related-test

    Transmissions at a distance can lose clarity, detail along with restrictions on memory.

    They are probably looking at quite large probes, nuclear powered transmitters, and relay probes along the route, – possibly placed at points of focussing of gravitational lenses.



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  • Alan4: Thanks for the link. Food for thought. I see why conventional, even nuclear powered rockets would not serve the purpose. Too big, bloated with heavy fuel, and fatally slow. I also understand the “centuries” time frame necessary for developing and launching the probe. Perhaps in some distant future, governments will scrape together enough spare change to attempt an interstellar probe project because like Mt. Everest, “interstellar space is there.” For the foreseeable future, projects like Elon Musk’s plan to colonize Mars will preoccupy the current imagination.



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  • Melvin
    Aug 14, 2015 at 9:03 pm

    I also understand the “centuries” time frame necessary for developing and launching the probe. Perhaps in some distant future, governments will scrape together enough spare change to attempt an interstellar probe project because like Mt. Everest, “interstellar space is there.”

    That is possible, but I think it more likely, that just as the human species spread throughout Earth by island hopping, it is more likely that probes and ships, refuelled from mining bases on cometary bodies in the Kuiper Belt and Oort Cloud will move out a step at a time.
    It looks like some of these comets, moons, and dwarf planets orbit as far out as half way to the nearest (Centauri) stars.

    There are already plans to refuel Earth communication satellites in orbit – possibly from materials mined on the Moon.

    You will also note that some of these icy comets have highly elliptical orbits, so a refuelling base or laser power-station placed on an outward bound one of them, could ride the orbit from near Earth to the outer Solar System, as the Philae lander will do.

    The comet we looked at recently http://www.esa.int/spaceinimages/Images/2015/07/Comet_around_perihelion, only goes out beside Jupiter, but others go much further.



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  • Melvin
    Aug 14, 2015 at 9:03 pm

    Perhaps in some distant future, governments will scrape together enough spare change to attempt an interstellar probe project because like Mt. Everest, “interstellar space is there.”

    It is worth remembering, that when Columbus sailed to the Americas, while he was sponsored by the King of Spain, he used second-hand standard commercial trading ships, and called at a Spanish port in the Canary Islands for more provisions on his way.

    I suspect that as humans try to explore inter-stellar space, they will use well developed inter-planetary technology, and any refuelling bases or resources which can be found in space and in the outer Solar-System.



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  • Alan4D

    Can you power a spaceship using a laser beam from earth, or one in near earth orbit? Grab the energy from the sun. Concentrate it into a beam, then project that energy much farther out into space. Further than space ship bound solar cells would be effective?



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  • David R Allen
    Aug 15, 2015 at 8:44 pm

    Can you power a spaceship using a laser beam from earth, or one in near earth orbit?

    Yes! – but it would need to be on a substantial body such as the Moon to absorb the opposite reaction from the thrust – Or it could be from the moons of the outer planets, Kuiper Belt bodies/dwarf planets or Oort Cloud objects.

    Grab the energy from the sun. Concentrate it into a beam, then project that energy much farther out into space.

    That is the basis or Project Dragonfly.
    Initially this would use solar sails,

    http://sail.planetary.org/
    LightSail™ is a citizen-funded project by The Planetary Society, the world’s largest non-profit space advocacy group. We’re sending a small spacecraft into Earth orbit carrying large, reflective sails measuring 32 square meters (344 square feet). We successfully completed a test flight in June 2015 that paved the way for a second, full-fledged solar sailing demonstration in 2016.

    Solar sails use the sun’s energy as a method of propulsion—flight by light. Light is made of packets of energy called photons. While photons have no mass, a photon traveling as a packet of light has energy and momentum.

    . . . but once too far out where the sunlight is too weak, a laser bean from the inner Solar-System powered by Sun, or a laser beam powered by nuclear or fusion generators placed on some body orbiting further out, would take over.

    There are other projects for using lasers for propulsion. One of the the most promising is the Laser bees Project to deflect an Earth impacting space rock by using its own vaporised material as a propellant.

    http://www.planetary.org/blogs/bruce-betts/20131029-laser-bees-update.html

    The Laser Bees concept would use a small “swarm” of spacecraft, each equipped with a powerful laser, to change the orbit of a potentially dangerous asteroid if one threatened the Earth. The lasers would vaporize (ablate) rock on the surface of the asteroid over weeks, months, or years and that would create jets of material that would push the asteroid in the opposite direction.

    Further than space ship bound solar cells would be effective?

    Space probes from Mars outward use RTG nuclear isotope generators because the sunlight is too weak for solar cells to be useful. Solar Sails are a different concept which is explained on the link above. A big probe or power unit would need a nuclear reactor or fusion reactor.
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/TOPAZ_nuclear_reactor



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  • There is more news about organic molecules, this time from comet impacts.

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-33988456

    New results show how collisions between comets and planets can make molecules that are the essential building blocks of life.

    This suggests that the chemistry needed to gather the molecular ingredients for life could be more common than previously recognised.

    Earth scientists from Japan carried out experiments to mimic comet impacts that occurred on early Earth. They found chemical reactions to make the primordial “soup for life” can occur anywhere that comets collide.

    Presenting their work at the Goldschmidt conference of geochemists in Prague, Dr Haruna Sugahara and Dr Koicha Mimura reported that after mixtures of ice, amino acids and rock were impacted with a projectile, the amino acids joined up to make complex organic molecules, peptides, which are important building blocks in biochemistry.

    Reactions to make peptides could, therefore, occur widely on bodies across the Solar System, including places like comets, as well as around other stars across the Universe, it seems.

    Prof Mark Burchell, from the University of Kent, UK, who was not involved in the work, commented to BBC News: “What this new work does is to show that if a comet containing such material were to hit a planet, the energy from the impact will drive further chemistry to help form short peptides, chains of amino acids that are useful to make proteins”



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