To solve the mystery of life's origin, scientists can no longer focus solely on Earth. They must take the entire universe into account. Reason: the discovery of nitrogen-carrying aromatic hydrocarbons throughout the universe.
Prior to their recent discovery in space, scientists had thought these biologically important molecules were unique to Earth. One type is the main ingredient in chocolate. Others carry genetic information in DNA.
The existence of these molecules in interstellar space "was considered impossible" 20 years ago, explains Louis Allamandola, who carried out this research with colleagues at the NASA Ames Research Center at Moffett Field, Calif. "Now, we know better.... As a class, they are more abundant than all other known interstellar polyatomic molecules combined."
The finding has profound significance for the occurrence of organic life. These kinds of molecules are key ingredients in the primordial chemical soup from which scientists think organic life may have arisen.
"Seeing their signature across the universe tells me they are accessible to young planets just about everywhere," says Douglas Hudgins, lead author of the report on this research published in the Astrophysical Journal earlier this month.
In fact, you don't even need a planet to get the organic-life game going.
"This new work shows that the early chemical steps believed to be important for the origin of life do not require a previously formed planet to occur," the Ames announcement explains. "Instead, some of the chemicals are already present throughout space long before planet formation occurs and, if they land in a hospitable environment, can help jump-start the origin of life."