Largest “Building Blocks of Life” Molecule Discovered Around a Distant Star

Scientists can observe the presence of organic molecules in space that can form new life.
dust molecules

What are organic molecules, why do they matter?

Without organic molecules, there can’t be life. states ‘Organic molecules are essentially the “building blocks” of life because every living thing (plant or animal) is made of organic molecules and usually needs to consume other organic molecules to live. Organic molecules are responsible for the DNA and RNA in animals and plants.’  Not all compounds, sometimes referred to as molecules, are organic; some compounds are inorganic.

Molecules are measured in very tiny measurements called angstroms; molecules’ size may range from a dimension of a few angstroms (Å) to several dozen Å, or around one billionth of a meter. Scientists usually study molecules on Earth with very powerful microscopes. In 2007 scientists were making groundbreaking advances with microscopes to see the detail of molecules.

A tiny discovery but not an insignificant one

Because of their tiny size, the search for organic molecules in space is a difficult one typically ‘Molecules are smaller than the wavelength of visible light. Much smaller, about three orders of magnitude. So, in visible light, we can not make a representation. They do not “look like” anything.’


Now astronomers from the Netherlands have been able to use the Atacama Large Millimetre/submillimetre Array (ALMA) telescope in Chile to be able to research molecules in space by observing ‘the light emitted by different molecules in the lopsided ring of dust and ice surrounding the young star IRS 48, located about 444 light-years from Earth in the constellation Ophiuchus.’

1024px ALMA and a Starry Night
ALMA and a Starry Night by ESO/B. Tafreshi under CC BY 4.0

These astronomers have been able to observe the presence of dimethyl ether in a planet-forming ring.  Dimethyl ether is considered quite a large molecule of nine atoms, but nine atoms is still minuscule/tiny to the rest of us.  The discovery of it in a planet-forming ring gives these astronomers the bragging rights that they have discovered the largest organic molecule ever observed in a planet-forming ring.

What is a protoplanetary forming ring?

A protoplanetary ring, sometimes called a protoplanetary disc, the rest of us can call it a “dust trap,” ‘is asymmetrical and shaped like a cashew nut. It contains a lot of millimeter-sized dust grains that fuse to grow into larger objects like comets, asteroids, and potentially even planets’.


Discovering dimethyl ether in a protoplanetary ring

The scientific community is certainly very excited about discovering dimethyl ether in a protoplanetary ring.

Dimethyl ether elpot transparent 3D sticks
Dimethyl-ether by Apotashg

What we know so far:

Watching the origins of life

This discovery will help scientists understand ‘how complex organic molecules make their way from star-forming regions of space to planet-forming regions, then ultimately to planets, themselves.’


Alice Booth, speaking for the team that found the presence of dimethyl ether, said ‘The abundance of dimethyl ether in star-forming regions coupled with this discovery suggests that the molecule may also be abundant in protoplanetary disks it also means that it’s possible to trace the full interstellar path of these molecules from stellar nurseries to planets.  We are incredibly pleased that we can now start to follow the entire journey of these complex molecules from the clouds that form stars to planet-forming disks and to comets, says astronomer.’

Observing the chemical reactions of organic molecules in dust traps in space essentially makes these dust traps like laboratories for astronomy observers, where they may see planets and life formed.

Feature image credit: IRS 48 by ESO/L. Calçada under CC BY 4.0


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