SPAIN: In a groundbreaking discovery, astronomers have detected significant amounts of the amino acid tryptophan in interstellar material within a nearby star-forming region of space.
Tryptophan is one of the essential amino acids responsible for the formation of crucial proteins necessary for life on Earth.
The distinctive spectral lines of tryptophan were identified in data collected by the Spitzer Space Telescope in infrared light from the star-forming IC348 star system.
This finding suggests that protein-building amino acids, commonly found in meteorites, could also be present in the gas and dust that coalesce to give birth to planetary systems around young stars.
Researchers from the Instituto de Astrofísica de Canarias (IAC) who made the discovery expressed their enthusiasm about the implications.
The IC348 star system is located within the Perseus Molecular Complex, a vast cloud of gas and dust with a mass equivalent to 10,000 suns.
Estimated to be just 2–3 million years old, IC348 is relatively young in cosmic terms compared to our 4.5 billion-year-old solar system.
Situated approximately 1,000 light-years away from Earth, IC348 is one of the closest star-forming regions to our planet. Although usually invisible to the naked eye, the region shines brightly in infrared light.
This spectroscopic analysis provides insights into the chemical composition of molecular clouds, interstellar gas, stars, and planetary atmospheres.
Space telescopes can identify the distinctive “fingerprints” that various elements and compounds leave in the light that passes through them by absorbing and emitting light at different wavelengths.
The tryptophan molecules observed had a temperature of approximately 44 degrees Fahrenheit (7 degrees Celsius).
This finding adds to previous discoveries by Iglesias-Groth, who detected other vital biological precursors to life, such as complex carbon molecules, in the IC348 star system.
The presence of prebiotic molecules in gas and dust clouds like IC348 suggests that young planets, as they form, could accrete these molecules onto their surfaces, potentially supporting the development of life.
Alternatively, these molecules could be enclosed within asteroids, which are formed from leftover material during planetary birth, and subsequently delivered to other planet surfaces through impacts during the early chaotic stages of planetary systems.
To further investigate these findings, Susana Iglesias-Groth, an IAC researcher, plans to continue their research using the upcoming James Webb Space Telescope (JWST).
The JWST’s spectroscopic capabilities could provide details about the spatial distribution of these molecules, as well as explore more complex ones.
This higher sensitivity and resolution are crucial for confirming the probable presence of amino acids in the gas within star-forming regions like IC348 and others.
The discovery of tryptophan in the interstellar material of a star-birthing region marks a significant milestone in our understanding of the potential for life beyond Earth.
Further studies and observations will unlock more secrets about these fascinating regions, bringing us closer to unravelling the mysteries of the universe and the origins of life itself.