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Complex organic matter discovered throughout the Universe

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October 28, 2011

A spectrum from the Infrared Space Observatory superimposed on an image of the Orion Nebul...

A spectrum from the Infrared Space Observatory superimposed on an image of the Orion Nebula where the complex organics are found

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Researchers at the University of Hong Kong (HKU) claim to have solved the mystery of "Unidentified Infrared Emission features" that have been detected in stars, interstellar space, and galaxies. For over two decades, the most commonly accepted theory regarding this phenomenon was that these signatures come from polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon (PAH) molecules - simple organic molecules made of carbon and hydrogen atoms. Now HKU researchers say the substances generating these signatures are actually complex organic compounds that are made naturally by stars and ejected into interstellar space.

The team of Prof. Sun Kwok and Dr. Yong Zhang used observations taken by the Infrared Space Observatory and the Spitzer Space Telescope of stardust formed in exploding stars called novae to show that the astronomical spectra contain a mixture of aromatic (ring-like) and aliphatic (chain-like) components that cannot be explained by PAH molecules.

A schematic of the typical structure of organic matter in the Universe containing a mixtur...

The researchers say the substances generating these infrared emissions actually have chemical structures that are so complex that their structure resembles those of coal and petroleum. Since coal and petroleum are remnants of ancient life and this type of organic matter was only thought to arise from living organisms, the researchers say this suggests that complex organic compounds can be synthesized in space even when no life forms are present.

Supporting an earlier idea by Kwok that old stars are molecular factories capable of manufacturing organic compounds, they say that not only are stars producing this complex matter on extremely short time scales of weeks, but they are also ejecting it into the general interstellar space in between stars.

"Our work has shown that stars have no problem making complex organic compounds under near-vacuum conditions," says Kwok. "Theoretically, this is impossible, but observationally we can see it happening."

Professor Sun Kwok (left) and Dr Zhang Yong of The University of Hong Kong

As the organic stardust is similar in structure to complex organic compounds found in meteorites, the findings raise the possibility that stars enriched the early solar system with organic compounds. With the Earth being bombarded by comets and meteorites early in its life that could potentially have carried the organic stardust, there is a possibility that the seeds of life on Earth were sown by organic compounds created naturally by stars. If that turns out to be the case, it has obvious implications for the chances of life outside our solar system as the complex organic compounds exist throughout the Universe.

Kwok and Zhang's Paper, Mixed aromatic-aliphatic organic nanoparticles as carriers of unidentified infrared emission features is published this month in the journal Nature.

About the Author
Darren Quick Darren's love of technology started in primary school with a Nintendo Game & Watch Donkey Kong (still functioning) and a Commodore VIC 20 computer (not still functioning). In high school he upgraded to a 286 PC, and he's been following Moore's law ever since. This love of technology continued through a number of university courses and crappy jobs until 2008, when his interests found a home at Gizmag.   All articles by Darren Quick
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13 Comments

is it safe to say this might just be the origin of the DNA? finally!

tarohoa
28th October, 2011 @ 01:12 am PDT

One potential hit to the creationist fundamentalists?

I hope so (:

Adrian Calderon
28th October, 2011 @ 04:40 am PDT

In 1947, Immanuel Velikovsky published his book Worlds in Collision. Velikovsky had perused ancient legends and historical documents from all parts of the world, and based on their very similar accounts, he concluded that during historical times, Earth has had near-collisions with both Mars and Venus. He correctly predicted the discovery that Venus's atmosphere consists of hydrocarbons and that its surface temperature is over 800F. The scientists he thus offended ridiculed him and made his publisher cancel his contract. (His second publisher made a killing on his books.)

Velikovsky, from his sources, concluded that Earth's stores of crude oil are not a result of the decomposition of organic matter, but a remnant of the atmosphere of Venus, detached during the near-collision by Earth's gravity. The discovery of Dr. Kwok and Dr. Zhang seems to support the idea that hydrocarbons could have rained from the sky, as Velikovsky said. Anyway, where else would Venus have got its hydrocarbon atmosphere? Certainly not from the decomposition of organic matter.

Robert Hoge
28th October, 2011 @ 10:32 am PDT

@tarahoa: This is to DNA what sand is to the Chartres Cathedral in France.

@Adrian: why do you want to hit people?

Timberwolf
28th October, 2011 @ 10:51 am PDT

There's a very controversial (some believe crack-pot) theory out there that petroleum is not the result of decaying organic material but rather was formed as part of the process that formed the early earth. If this is the case, then there could be huge deposits of petroleum locked deep inside the earth (at a greater depth that where one would find the accumulation of organic material). Proponents of the theory point to two things: (1) there is a larger mass of petroleum in known reserves than the estimates of the total mass of organic material over the history of the earth and (2) depleted oil well are "filling back up" and no one can ascertain the source of the oil that is replenishing the wells, but its thought to be coming from very deep sources.

This new work would tend to add some credence to the theory (moving it from "crack-pot" status to "wild and unsupported speculation".

mpaul
28th October, 2011 @ 11:12 am PDT

"chances of life outside our solar system as the complex organic compounds" Did anyone miss the word "chances?" People are so desperate to hang their hats on the idea that life can begin by accident, that reality is abandoned! To go from "chance" to DNA is such a leap of faith that it makes creation seem more real. The beauty of creation is that it does not force anyone to except it. Evolution has had an opposite history of bombardment of overwhelming ideas as to make others except it. What are they afraid of? If it is true - why try so hard to prove it?

donwine
28th October, 2011 @ 05:52 pm PDT

re; Adrian Calderon

Complex organic chemicals or even actual extraterrestrial life is no more evidence of evolution than it is of biblical creation.

The "Florida Panther" is evidence one way or the other and given it was going extinct because the mutation laden progeny would die before being born until they brought in outside genetic material to dilute the mutations; I'm going with Special Creation.

Slowburn
28th October, 2011 @ 06:28 pm PDT

It's safe to say that this is probably the organic matter that came out of my rear end a few life times ago in a distant galaxy or two.

jingleburp
28th October, 2011 @ 10:25 pm PDT

"The researchers say the substances generating these infrared emissions actually have chemical structures that are so complex that their structure resembles those of coal and petroleum. Since coal and petroleum are remnants of ancient life and this type of organic matter was only thought to arise from living organisms,...."

OK, I see two assumptions in this line of argument, so I'm introducing two alternate theories:

1. Stars are actually fueled by coal and petroleum,

2. Stars are really giant organic space eggs

alcalde
29th October, 2011 @ 10:49 am PDT

Just because the "lame stream" media promotes myths like global warming and fossil fuel does not mean we should accept them without investigation. The science tells us that oil is NOT created by plant life. This latest finding is just one more proof.

voluntaryist
29th October, 2011 @ 02:36 pm PDT

re; voluntaryist

Given that crude oil has been produced in the laboratory by pressure cooking plant material I'll say your argument is somewhat strident. Granted it is difficult to explain the worlds coal and oil without a global catastrophe on the order of the biblical flood, but so are the rest of the fossils.

Slowburn
30th October, 2011 @ 12:36 am PDT

re: Slowburn

"...difficult to explain..."? NO, impossible to explain. The origin of petroleum is unknown. It has been found at great depths far below where plant matter would be. Also, it regenerates. Fossil fuel does not. Russian scientists have been successful finding oil where it was not supposed to be because they do not subscribe to the western myth.

voluntaryist
31st October, 2011 @ 10:02 pm PDT

@ Volintarist, while regeneration is certainly a compelling phenomenon, could the action of subduction account for depths inconsistant where plant matter should be expected? I have no reason to put forth any opposing theory, but I am always a little uncomfotable with theories put forth as absolutes without airtight irrefutable proof, at least within reaon such as the quantum theory explaining tunnling diodes for example. One of the pillars of discovery is an open mind, you'd you agree?

Burnerjack
28th May, 2012 @ 06:18 pm PDT
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