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Friday, 16 June, 2000, 15:49 GMT 16:49 UK
Sugar in space sweetens chances of life
Kitt's Peak
Super snooper: The dish that found the sugar
By BBC News Online science editor Dr David Whitehouse

The Universe, it seems, could have a sweet tooth. Astronomers have discovered a simple sugar molecule in space.

The discovery of the molecule glycolaldehyde in a giant cloud of gas and dust near the centre of our own Galaxy was made by scientists using at 12 m (39 feet) radio telescope on Kitt Peak, Arizona, US.

"The discovery of this sugar molecule in a cloud from which new stars are forming means it is increasingly likely that the chemical precursors to life are formed in such clouds long before planets develop around the stars," said team member Jan Hollis of the Nasa Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland, US.

"This discovery may be an important key to understanding the formation of life on the early Earth," said Phillip Jewell of the National Radio Astronomy Observatory in West Virginia.

Building block

"Conditions in interstellar clouds may, in some cases, mimic the conditions on the early Earth, so studying the chemistry of interstellar clouds may help scientists understand how bio-molecules formed early in our planet's history," he said.

Some scientists have suggested that Earth could have been "seeded" with complex molecules by passing comets. These carry material from the interstellar cloud that condensed to form the Solar System.

Glycolaldehyde is an 8-atom molecule composed of carbon, oxygen and hydrogen. It can combine with other molecules to form the more complex sugars ribose and glucose. Ribose is a building block of nucleic acids such as RNA and DNA, which carry the genetic code of living organisms.

Glucose is the sugar found in fruits. Glycolaldehyde contains exactly the same atoms, though in a different molecular structure, as methyl formate and acetic acid, both of which have been detected previously in interstellar clouds.

And glycolaldehyde is a simpler molecular cousin to the sugar you stir into your coffee, the scientists say.
Sagittarius B2
Sagittarius B2 concealed the sugar

The sugar molecule was detected by its faint radio emission in a large cloud of gas and dust called Sagittarius B2, some 26,000 light-years away, near the centre of our Galaxy.

So far, about 120 different molecules have been discovered in such clouds. Most of these molecules contain a small number of atoms, and only a few molecules with eight or more atoms have been found.

"Finding glycolaldehyde in one of these interstellar clouds means that such molecules can be formed, even in very rarified conditions," said Dr Hollis. "But we don't yet understand how it formed."

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16 Jul 99 | Sci/Tech
Rare form of carbon found in space
21 Mar 00 | Sci/Tech
ET gases caged on Earth
08 Apr 00 | Sci/Tech
Search continues for life in space
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