- Carlos Serrano (@carliserrano)
- BBC News World
How did life originate on Earth? Nobody knows, but knowing the ingredients that made it possible can give us valuable clues.
In a recent study, a group of Spanish researchers claim that they detected one of these ingredients in space, very close to the center of the Milky Way.
It’s about the ethanolamine, a molecule that is present in the cell membrane of all living beings and that now, for the first time, was observed outside our planet.
“This can help us understand how the first cells on Earth“Víctor M. Rivilla, one of the co-authors of the study developed by the Centro de Astrobiología (CAB), a Spanish state research center, associated with the NASA Astrobiology Institute, tells BBC Mundo.
The finding also leaves open the possibility that the ingredients that make life possible are present in other places in the universe different from Earth.
What is ethanolamine and what clues does it give us about origin of life what do we know?
Key molecule for life
Ethanolamine is a molecule that contains four of the six fundamental chemical elements for life: oxygen, nitrogen, hydrogen and carbon.
In addition, it is one of the components of cell membranes, the protective layer that covers the cells of all organisms and that allows cells to occur inside them. genetic and metabolic processes.
“Understanding how these membranes were formed is a fundamental step to understand how living organisms were formed“, dice Rivilla.
How did they find it?
Ethanolamine had previously been detected in meteorites, but it is not clear how it got there.
Now, with the help of two radio telescopes, Rivilla and her colleagues detected ethanolamine in a molecular cloud located at 100,000 light years from Earth.
In space, molecules vibrate and emit photons, which are particles of light.
“The way each molecule vibrates is like its signature,” says Rivilla.
Thus, by detecting the photon trail within the cloud, the researchers noted that the vibrations they were observing corresponded to millions of ethanolamine molecules in that cloud at the center of the galaxy.
Because it is important?
Research results suggest that ethanolamine is present in molecular clouds in space, which is where they form. new stars and planets
So the conclusion of Rivilla and his team is that ethanolamine may have been present in asteroids that are known to bombard the early Earth, billions of years ago.
“We estimate that around a thousand trillion (a 1 followed by 15 zeros!) Of liters of ethanolamine could have been transferred to the early Earth through meteorite impacts“Izaskun Jiménez-Serra, a CAB researcher and co-author of the study, said in a statement.
In this way, the molecule could have come to our planet from space, and once here it could be combined with other molecules that helped to form more efficient and more robust cell membranes that favored the evolution of the first living organisms.
“Ethanolamine is one of the few truly complex molecules discovered in space that is direct and undeniably relevant for biology as we know it, “says Brett A. McGuire, an astronomer and professor of chemistry at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), who was not involved in the research.
The fact that these essential molecules are present in space suggests that, under the right conditions, they could give rise to life forms elsewhere in the cosmos.
“If the ingredients of life are spread throughout the universe, it is also likely that life can arise anywhere as soon as the conditions are favorable, “says the astrochemist Sergio Ioppolo, referring to this finding, in an article on the portal Inverse.
“Life is probably not an exception, but rather an additional step in the evolution of the regions of space where stars are formed, “adds Ioppolo, a researcher at Queen Mary University London, who was not involved in this study.
McGuire, for his part, clarifies that the fact that ethanolamine has been found in this interstellar region does not mean that there are cell membranes there, or that this molecule is common in the space.
Rivilla and his team already suspected that there could be ethanolamine molecules in deep space, because other molecules with a similar chemical structure had already been detected before.
Now they already have the certainty that they are present there, but the question that remains pending is how were they formed those molecules.
That is the task that follows.
Through theoretical studies, chemical models and experiments that simulate the interstellar medium, Rivilla and her colleagues want to understand the origin of ethanolamine molecules.
In addition, thanks to the fact that radio telescopes are increasingly sensitive and sophisticated, they hope to detect other types of complex molecules that may have led to the formation of cell membranes, but also the RNA and DNA that contain the genetic information; and proteins that are responsible for metabolism.
Putting together that spatial puzzle “could be the key to understanding the origin of life“, concludes Rivilla.
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