Astronomers have discovered a pre-organic molecule in a molecular cloud in space, a discovery that could be important to our understanding of how life on Earth evolved. The ethanolamine (NH2CH2CH2OH) molecule is known as a prebiotic compound that preceded the arrival of life on Earth and probably played a role in it. In living organisms, these molecules are part of the cell membrane, the barrier between different cells.
Ethanolamine was first discovered in meteorites, and researchers suspected that it was something in meteorites that must have helped form molecules. New research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences changes this picture. The team observed a molecular cloud called G + 0.693–0.027 near the center of the Milky Way. It is one of the most chemically rich clouds in the galaxy. Using a radio telescope, they observed the faint emission of ethanolamine into the clouds in astonishing abundance.
Lead author Víctor M. Rivilla from the Centro de Astrobiología in Madrid, said in a statement, “These results suggest that ethanolamine efficiently forms in the intercellular space of the molecular cloud where new stars and planetary systems are formed.” Observations suggest that the abundance of this molecule in the interstitial space is similar to that found in tattoos. This led the team to the conclusion that it was formed between stars and later attached to the space rock as soon as the solar system was formed.
These rocks eventually brought ethanolamine with them as it rained on Earth. According to the group’s experiments, these molecules could eventually form phospholipids, larger molecules forming cell membranes. “The presence of ethanolamine in the first world together with fatty acids or alcohols may contribute to the assembly and early evolution of primitive cell membranes. Co-author Carlos Briones says it will have a significant impact not only on researching the origins of life on Earth, but also on planets and satellites that can live anywhere in the universe. These observations were made using the IRAM 30-meter and Yebes 40-meter radiotelescopes in Spain. However, there are larger and more sophisticated instruments for finding such molecules, so researchers believe that we will soon understand where some of the most important elements of life come from.