Spanish scientists find for the first time the key molecule for the origin of life

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by Esteban Tejedor

Posted on June 4, 2021

Spanish scientists find for the first time the key molecule for the origin of life

A molecule, called ethanolamine, that contains the four fundamental chemical elements (oxygen, carbon, hydrogen and nitrogen), has been detected for the first time by researchers at the Center for Astrobiology (CAB), a Spanish organisation of the Higher Council for Scientific Research (Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas, CSIC) and the National Institute of Aerospace Technology of the Spanish Ministry of Defense.

The finding has occurred in a molecular cloud located in the center of the galaxy and highlights that the precursors of life are in space. "The basic ingredients for life are there", said Víctor Manuel Rivilla, from the Astrobiology Center, who has led an international and multidisciplinary investigation that has involved astrophysicists, astrochemists and biochemists, has stated in a statement.

Ethanolamine is part of a group of molecules (phospholipids) that make up cell membranes and that were crucial in the origin and early evolution of life on Earth. Therefore, this finding points to the possibility that from these "ingredients" life has been formed or can be created in other places in the universe in the same way that it has been formed and created on Earth. However, the study authors clarify that these hypothetical life forms in other places in space do not have to be similar to those known on Earth.

The discovery was made possible thanks to the 30-meter diameter radio telescope installed at Pico Veleta (Granada) and the 40-meter radio telescope at the Yebes Observatory (Guadalajara), both in Spain. "Our results suggest that ethanolamine is synthesized very efficiently in interstellar space in molecular clouds where new stars and planetary systems are formed", the lead researcher pointed out.

The appearance of cell membranes, research centers have highlighted, represents a very important milestone in the origin of life on Earth, since they are responsible for maintaining stable conditions inside cells, protecting both the material genetic as the metabolic machinery. "We know that a wide repertoire of prebiotic molecules could have reached the primitive Earth through the bombardment of comets and meteorites", explained researcher Izaskun Jiménez-Serra, from the Center for Astrobiology and co-author of the study.

The researcher explained that scientists' estimates suggest that "around a thousand billion litres of ethanolamine could have been transferred to the primitive Earth by meteorite impacts" and has observed that this amount is equivalent to the total volume of Lake Victoria, the largest of Africa. Researchers have found that the value of the abundance in the interstellar medium of ethanolamine relative to that of water suggests that ethanolamine was probably formed in space and could be transferred to meteorites later.

According to Carlos Briones, co-author of the study, "the availability of ethanolamine in the primitive Earth, together with fatty acids or alcohols, could have contributed to the evolution of primitive cell membranes", which has —he underlined— important implications not only for the study of the origin of life on Earth, but also on other habitable planets and satellites within the solar system or anywhere in the universe.

 

Source: El Español


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