Wed Nov 26 21:02:24 PST 2008

Glycolaldehyde - A Sweet Alien Molecule

For the first time glycolaldehyde, a very simple sugar, has been found in a star-forming region of the galaxy. That means a modestly complicated organic molecule exists where there are likely to be planets that could support life. This isn't news of an alien life form, it is the detection of a small organic molecule, related to the simplest amino acid glycine, thousands of light years away from the planet earth.

Glycolaldehyde has been seen before but in regions where there are no stars and therefore no planets.

Glycolaldehyde, A Simple Sugar

Glycolaldehyde, shown above, was detected by the wavelengths of electromagnetic radiation that it absorbs. Careful analysis of radio telescope data revealed, via the presence of three characteristic lines, that glycolaldegyde was out there.

As you can see from the image, glycolaldehyde is a simple molecule. But despite its simplicity it can be used to construct other more complex molecules, for example, it can react with propenal to form ribose, a constituent of Ribonucleic acid (RNA).

Although a molecule like glycolaldehyde is a building block, this is an important discovery. It means that the diverse organic chemistry that we see on earth is quite possibly present elsewhere in the galaxy. This is something that has long been suspected, on the basis of careful analysis of the contents of meteorites which land on earth, for example. However, glycolaldehyde indicates that there is organic complexity out there amid the stars and where there is complexity there will be interesting discoveries!

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