Like the Milky Way (Candy Bar), the Milky Way (Galaxy) Contains Sugar

Star factories also produce sugars—and might seed planets with the ingredients for life.

By Andrew Grant
Feb 22, 2009 6:00 AMNov 12, 2019 5:40 AM
milkyway.jpg
Image courtesy of ESO | 2Mass/J. Carpenter, M. Skrutskie, R. Hurt

Newsletter

Sign up for our email newsletter for the latest science news
 

The inventory of ingredients for life that have been observed in space is large and growing. Last November an international team of astronomers made perhaps the most significant such discovery to date: They found glycol­aldehyde, a type of sugar, in a Milky Way stellar nursery 26,000 light-years away.

Glycolaldehyde is a key component in RNA, which may have driven the development of the first living cells on Earth. According to study author Serena Viti, an astrochemist at University College London, this is the first time that the molecule has been identified in a region of the galaxy that could be hospitable to life.

By looking for unique chemical signatures in light and radio signals gathered by telescopes, researchers have observed more than 140 molecules—including increasingly complex organic ones—surrounding stars or in interstellar space. Another RNA ingredient, propenal, was found in the Milky Way in 2004. Some astronomers have even reported spotting amino acids, the building blocks of proteins, although these finds remain unconfirmed. And last April, a German team identified a molecule closely related to amino acids in a gas cloud in the constellation Sagittarius.

Some researchers have speculated that organic space molecules could help seed life on other worlds. But Alycia Weinberger of the Carnegie Institution of Washington takes a more cautious view, noting that the chemicals might not survive the violent processes of star and planet formation. Still, Weinberger says, the recent discoveries are very encouraging in the search for life in the cosmos, especially if astronomers find that complex organic substances are widespread throughout the universe.

New technology may speed the search. In 2010 a sensitive radio telescope array in Chile, called ALMA, will begin operation, giving researchers an unprecedented ability to locate substances that suggest we are not alone.

1 free article left
Want More? Get unlimited access for as low as $1.99/month

Already a subscriber?

Register or Log In

1 free articleSubscribe
Discover Magazine Logo
Want more?

Keep reading for as low as $1.99!

Subscribe

Already a subscriber?

Register or Log In

More From Discover
Recommendations From Our Store
Shop Now
Stay Curious
Join
Our List

Sign up for our weekly science updates.

 
Subscribe
To The Magazine

Save up to 40% off the cover price when you subscribe to Discover magazine.

Copyright © 2024 Kalmbach Media Co.