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Chemical Discovered In Deep Space Hints At How Life Formed

First time in history, a chiral molecule has been observed far from the Solar System. Chiral molecules come in two dissimilar forms, but the fact that some of them nearly always turn up on Earth in just one of these forms has been beneficial to life, though deeply mystifying to biochemists.

Sagittarius B2 (N) cloud somewhere here among the Milky Way Galaxy

The declaration in Science of the discovery of the first chiral molecule in space, propylene oxide (CH3CHOCH2), discovered in the star-forming Sagittarius B2(N) cloud located in the center of Milky Way galaxy, approves a prediction about how this difference might have arisen.

Chiral molecules are similar to gloves. Their possible forms are mirror images of each other. Whether supposed right or left-handed, each form only fits with other molecules shaped the similar way, but the two share common behaviors such as melting temperature.

Our gene or DNA has a backbone of ribose, and if the entire ribose or half on Earth was in each form, both right and left-handed, life would have a much harder time. As an alternative, it is all left handed, but we do not actually know why. Last year an effort to mimic in the research laboratory the gas clouds from which interstellar stars and planets form produced chiral glycine, which catalyzes other chiral molecules. The team of scientists that revealed this suggested that glycine in space seeded Earth with constantly left-handed molecules, and the accessibility of these shaped the way life developed.

Molecular forms of left (S) and right-handed propylene oxide (CH3CHOCH2). B. Saxton (NRAO/AUI/NSF)

When Caltech's Professor Geoffrey Blake noticed the signature of chiral propylene oxide (CH3CHOCH2) molecules in pre-existing radio observations of star creating clouds he approved the discovery is not really surprising. As the paper notes: “Propylene oxide is the third species of the C3H6O family spotted from this source.” Other alike molecules have also been discovered in the same gas cloud.

But, Brandon Carroll, one of Blake's graduate students, said in a report: "It's the first molecule spotted in  interstellar space that has the property of chirality, making it a ground-breaking jump forward in our knowledge of how pre-biotic molecules are prepared in space and the special effects they may have on the ascends of life.”
Different from amino acids, propylene oxide (CH3CHOCH2) is not essential for the formation of life, but being smaller it is easier for radio telescopes to spot. The finding has cheered the team that more discoveries of chiral molecules may be awaiting. The Sagittarius gas clouds with the two forms of propylene oxide (CH3CHOCH2) and the position where their signal has been found.

B. Saxton, NRAO/AUI/NSF from data delivered by N.E. Kassim, Naval Research Laboratory (KRL), Sloan Digital Sky Survey

Propylene oxide may be either on the right or left-handed form, but the most thrilling aspect will be if one form is found to leading in gas clouds, representing the same would relate to planets that form out of them. The paper records that such a difference might be made either by radioactive decline or by circularly divided light hitting the molecules. Circularly divided light has been spotted in different parts of the Orion Nebula. Starting this will not be easy, though, with Carroll noting, chiral molecules' “spectra are like your bare-hands' shadows. It is incredible to tell if a right or a left hand is forming the shadow.”

Blake said: "The discovery of propylene oxide, and the future plans it allows, lets us begin to ask the problem or question, does space pre-biotic chemistry plant the ancient cosmic seeds that define the handedness of life?"



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