Sugarcoated news arrives from space

The stuff of the cosmos just got sweeter. Researchers announced last week the first discovery of a sugar in space.

The sugar bowl: Gas and dust cloud Sagittarius B2 (North). NRAO/AUI/NSF

They found it in a massive cloud of gas and dust 26,000 light-years from Earth.

Last month, the scientists searched for the simple sugar called glycolaldehyde with the 12 Meter Telescope on Kitt Peak near Tucson, Ariz. They detected the sugar’s signature radio emissions in the star-forming region Sagittarius B2 (North), near the center of the Milky Way. The eight-atom molecule contains hydrogen, oxygen, and carbon. It can combine with other molecules to form more-complex sugars, such as ribose, that serve as biological building blocks.

Glycolaldehyde’s discovery also gives space scientists their first set of three molecules that are made of the same atoms but arranged in different structures, report Philip R. Jewell of the National Radio Astronomy Observatory in Green Bank, W.Va., Jan M. Hollis of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., and Frank J. Lovas of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Acetic acid and methyl formate, previously discovered in interstellar clouds, and the sugar make up the first isomeric triplet in space.

“We can look in interstellar space and use this as a laboratory to try to examine the chemistry that might have existed on the early Earth,” says Jewell.

“Furthermore, people have postulated—and it’s just a hypothesis—that materials like this would have seeded the Earth from cometary tails that passed by the Earth early on after its formation,” says Jewell.

“That may be the reason why life arose quickly,” adds Hollis. “Some of the processing had already gone on in the cloud before the Earth was formed.” Making more complicated biological building blocks like ribose may be almost impossible in space, comments James P. Ferris of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y., who directs the New York Center for Studies on the Origins of Life. “The detection of glycolaldehyde helps the problem [of how life might arise] along a little bit. . . . Maybe if this can be forming in the interstellar medium, then maybe there are even more complex structures up there.”

Concerned that the results might be misinterpreted, Hollis says that he “would caution against making too great a leap of faith between detection of a simple sugar and detecting life in the interstellar clouds.”

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