AUSTRALIAN researchers have made a key discovery that could potentially answer a fundamental question of biology and help point to intelligent life outside our solar system.
The CSIRO’s Parkes Telescope has confirmed the discovery of a complex molecule near the Milky Way’s centre — 26,000 light years away — which has a key attribute associated with life.
The molecule, propylene oxide, is the most complex molecule found in space to date and is known as a chiral molecule meaning it has a mirror image of itself, much like we have a left and a right hand.
Chiral molecules are essential to biology on Earth, but until now they hadn’t been known to exist outside our own solar system.
“They’re the building blocks of life,” Dr John Reynolds, the Director of Operations at CSIRO Astronomy and Space Science told news.com.au.
“The idea is if these molecules are found in space, it’s evidence that that’s where life came from. So somehow these molecules made their way to Earth via meteorites or whatever, and life started on Earth and possibly many other places as well,” he said.
“The more evidence of these complex molecules we find in space, it kind of favours the theory that that’s where life started, and is likely to be widespread.”
Not only could the finding help astronomers search for extraterrestrial life in the universe, it could also help researchers understand “one of the greatest mysteries in biology,” the CSIRO said in a statement.
A majority of molecules associated with life such as amino acids that make up proteins only exist in the left-handed form. The phenomenon is known as homochirality and has largely stumped biologists.
“Understanding how this came about is a major puzzle in biology,” Dr Reynolds said. “We may be able to answer that question with further observations,” he added.
“The questions we’d really like to answer is how it is that one handedness, so left handedness gets selected over right handedness. If life on Earth is all left handed, how did that happen?”
By further studying the molecules in space, Dr Reynolds believes we might be able to understand how, or why, that process takes place.
The finding is being announced at a meeting of the American Astronomical Society Wednesday and will appear in the journal Science.
The CSIRO has allocated 25 per cent of the time the Parkes Telescope scans the sky to search for life in the universe, beginning in July 2016.
The decision was made after the Australian organisation struck a deal with Russian investor Yuri Milner who has committed $100 million to the search for alien life.
And scientists believe the identification of the propylene oxide molecule could very well help in that quest.