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Public release date: 25-Nov-2008
Contact: Julia Short
Science and Technology Facilities Council
Sweet molecule could lead us to alien life
Scientists have detected an organic sugar molecule that is directly linked to
the origin of life, in a region of our galaxy where habitable planets could
exist. The discovery, part funded by the UK's Science and Technology Facilities
Council (STFC), is published today (25th November) on the Astro-ph website.
The international team of researchers, including a researcher at University
College London (UCL), used the IRAM radio telescope in France to detect the
molecule in a massive star forming region of space, some 26000 light years from
Dr Serena Viti, one of the paper's authors from University College London,
said, "This is an important discovery as it is the first time glycolaldehyde, a
basic sugar, has been detected towards a star-forming region where planets that
could potentially harbour life may exist."
The molecule – glycolaldehyde - has previously only been detected towards the
centre of our galaxy where conditions are extreme compared to the rest of the
galaxy. This new discovery, in an area far from the galactic centre, also
suggests that the production of this key ingredient for life could be common
throughout the galaxy. This is good news in our search for alien life, as a
wide spread of the molecule improves the chances of it existing along side
other molecules vital to life and in regions where Earth-like planets may exist.
The team were able to detect glycolaldehyde by using the telescope to observe
the region with high-angular resolution and at different wavelengths. The
observations confirmed the presence of three lines of glycolaldegyde towards
the most central part of the core of the region
Glycolaldehyde, the simplest of the monosaccharide sugars, can react with the
substance propenal to form ribose, a central constituent of Ribonucleic acid
(RNA), thought to be the central molecule in the origin of life.
Professor Keith Mason, Chief Executive of the Science and Technology Facilities
Council (STFC), said, "The discovery of an organic sugar molecule in a star
forming region of space is very exciting and will provide incredibly useful
information in our search for alien life. Research like this, combined with the
vast array of other astronomical projects involving UK researchers, is
continually expanding our knowledge of the Universe and keeping the UK at the
forefront of astronomy."
Notes for editors
STFC Press Office
Tel: + 44 (0)1793 442 012
Mob: + 44 (0)777 027 6721
Email: [EMAIL PROTECTED]
Dr Serena Viti
Reader and AF
Dept of Physics and Astronomy
University College London
Tel: +44 (0)20 7679 3435
Email: [EMAIL PROTECTED]
The paper will also be published in the Astrophysical Journal Letters
The international team of scientists are from:
* The Universitat de Barcelona-CSIC, Barcelona
* INAF-Istituto di Radioastronomia and INAF-Osservatorio Astrofisico di
Arcetri in Florence
* University College London
* Institute de Radiastronomie Millimétrique, Grenoble
The massive star forming region where the sugar molecules were detected is
known as G31.41+0.31
For more information on the Institut de RadioAstronomie Millimétrique (IRAM),
please visit http://www.iram.fr/
Online version of the Astrophysical Journal paper:
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