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Naturally Occuring Complex Organic Material Is The By-Product Of Stars

We might think of most of the Universe as a vast, cold, uncaring place where elements rule… But we’d be wrong. Astronomers are now reporting that organic compounds of high diversity exist throughout the Cosmos and aren’t the primary property of life. Are we all just “star stuff”? You bet. Complex organic materials can be produced by stars!

While these complex compounds bear a resemblance to our Earthly coal and petroleum, they’re out there. Professor Sun Kwok and Dr. Yong Zhang of the University of Hong Kong have found that organic compounds exists throughout the Universe. These stellar by-products are mixture of aromatic (ring-like) and aliphatic (chain-like) components that closely resemble fossil fuels – a remnant of life. Does this raise eyebrows? Darn right it does. It means that “complex organic compounds can be synthesized in space even when no life forms are present.”

How did the team discover these organic compounds? During research, they found a bit of mystery – a set of unidentified infrared emissions in stars, galaxies and even interstellar space. For the last twenty years, this spectral signature has been commonly accepted as being PAHs – polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon molecules. By utilizing the Infrared Space Observatory and the Spitzer Space Telescope, Kwok and Zhang have shown there’s more there than just a PAH… it’s a lot more complex. Through infra-red emissions and spectral studies, the team has shown that a nova event can produce these compounds in a very short period of time. It can happen within weeks.

Not only are the stars producing complex organic materials, but they’re pumping them into interstellar space as well. And the idea isn’t new. Kwok had proposed stars as compound factories and this current research supports his vision. “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.”

But that’s not all. These types of complex materials are also found in meteorites. This opens the door to the theory that the early solar nebula may have also been home to organic materials. Could this be the “space seed” that began life on Earth? Just asking…

Original Story Source: Space Ref News Release.

About 

Tammy is a professional astronomy author, President Emeritus of Warren Rupp Observatory and retired Astronomical League Executive Secretary. She’s received a vast number of astronomy achievement and observing awards, including the Great Lakes Astronomy Achievement Award, RG Wright Service Award and the first woman astronomer to achieve Comet Hunter's Gold Status.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Anonymous October 28, 2011, 7:26 PM

    If only atoms and molecules had a memory for it seems we are star stuff,and have been in the vast empty spaces between the stars and if the universe began with a bang each of us was there too.

  • IVAN3MAN_AT_LARGE October 28, 2011, 9:24 PM

    Kwok and Zhang have shown there’s more there than just [Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbon]… it’s a lot more complex.

    Kwok and Zhang – astronomy’s equivalent to Cheech and Chong.

    Here’s the link to their paper: A Spitzer/IRS spectral study of a sample of galactic carbon-rich proto-planetary nebulae.

  • HeadAroundU October 28, 2011, 10:10 PM

    “Could this be the “space seed” that began life on Earth? Just asking…”

    I guess it could be called “seed” and it could start it all here, but then you need other favourable conditions. I don’t know if “mother” Earth was capable to create such complex organic material on its own and how often. Or, complex organic material could simply be statistically helpful all the time. Vast amounts of water could have fallen on Earth too, but let’s not go further into romantic, corporate and religious theories. Just answering…:D

  • Torbjörn Larsson October 28, 2011, 10:10 PM

    [Ivan] The story source link is broken. [/Ivan]

    So an especially heartfelt thanks for the ref, Ivan!

    these complex compounds bear a resemblance to our Earthly coal and petroleum, […] These types of complex materials are also found in meteorites.

    Well, not exactly. I’m skipping the references for now, but this is my impression:

    The kerogen pathway that is making petroleum is generic in nature. Oxygenated biochemicals loose first oxygen, then hydrogen during heating and compression, turning aliphatic chains to aromatic (I think) on their way back to more or less carbon residue.

    The CHONS compounds of meteorites like Murchison or interplanetary dust particles seems to originate from irradiation activated chemical pathways. They make both chains and rings, the latter preferentially with nitrogen in. (A pathway towards nucleotides, no doubt.) However, they have lost their history (follow simple gaussian like distributions of number of atoms), so the prediction is valid but not exclusively so.

    Hence in smaller bodies I would think these complex compounds are mostly primordial radiation activated “PAH related”, while in larger bodies and from stars I would think they are mostly heat activated (impacts, star atmospheres) “kerogen related”, if these labels makes sense.

    Some of these mechanisms mainly build larger molecules, some mainly break them down. But having many different pathways ending up with compounds suitable for abiogenesis is … even better. =D

  • Torbjörn Larsson October 28, 2011, 10:10 PM

    [Ivan] The story source link is broken. [/Ivan]

    So an especially heartfelt thanks for the ref, Ivan!

    these complex compounds bear a resemblance to our Earthly coal and petroleum, […] These types of complex materials are also found in meteorites.

    Well, not exactly. I’m skipping the references for now, but this is my impression:

    The kerogen pathway that is making petroleum is generic in nature. Oxygenated biochemicals loose first oxygen, then hydrogen during heating and compression, turning aliphatic chains to aromatic (I think) on their way back to more or less carbon residue.

    The CHONS compounds of meteorites like Murchison or interplanetary dust particles seems to originate from irradiation activated chemical pathways. They make both chains and rings, the latter preferentially with nitrogen in. (A pathway towards nucleotides, no doubt.) However, they have lost their history (follow simple gaussian like distributions of number of atoms), so the prediction is valid but not exclusively so.

    Hence in smaller bodies I would think these complex compounds are mostly primordial radiation activated “PAH related”, while in larger bodies and from stars I would think they are mostly heat activated (impacts, star atmospheres) “kerogen related”, if these labels makes sense.

    Some of these mechanisms mainly build larger molecules, some mainly break them down. But having many different pathways ending up with compounds suitable for abiogenesis is … even better. =D

    • IVAN3MAN_AT_LARGE October 28, 2011, 10:41 PM

      You’re welcome, Torbjörn! Also, if you’re gonna do an impression of me, then you should start the sentence with “Yo Tammy,…”. ;-)

      • Torbjörn Larsson October 29, 2011, 10:53 AM

        Yo Ivan, I will take a note!

    • John Duff October 30, 2011, 3:16 PM
  • metamaterials October 29, 2011, 2:09 AM

    Carbon nanotubes, buckyballs, graphenes are released in older cooler red giant stars and supernovas. DNA self-assembles on carbon nanotubes in outer space conditions in experiment by Johnson. It seems strange that a star would suddenly start producing complex organics, within days and weeks, when the better explanation is that organic life is replicating and excreting complex organics as waste, just beginning to thrive and flourish as lesser life forms on circumstellar carbonaceous material when stellar conditions and supply suddenly become favorable. Proteins too can assemble on carbon nanotubes in vacuum near absolute zero, and likely nature does it naturally and better then scientists in the lab. A carbon nanotube might be considered as the functional equivalent to a ribosome, that initiates the sudden formation of complex organics. Coal, peat, oil, take millions of years to form on earth, because it takes that many lives with their waste products on earth to accumulate, but vast interstellar space and simple short lived life forms could produce huge amounts of the complex organics, without problematic theoretical star models. The Orion nebulae is filled with complex organics, and could be flourishing with some kind of nearly living molecules, perhaps a feeding food chain and ecosystem we will discover. We are waiting on Zhang and Kwok’s data when better newer IR telescopes will be able to detect what might be common DNA in outer space, and want this IR organics program funded worldwide

    • Torbjörn Larsson October 29, 2011, 11:06 AM

      It is not “strange” to see organics, it is expected from abiogenesis and it is now observed to be ubiquitous far away from any reasonable biospheres.

      What is strange is to propose that this is a sign of life. Would free oxygen need to come from life? No, it can be produced by heating oxygenated compounds. Would complex hydrocarbons need to be from life. No, they can be produced by irradiating CO2 and H2O ices on silicate surfaces AFAIK.

      “Coal, peat, oil, take millions of years to form on earth, because it takes that many lives with their waste products on earth to accumulate,”

      As I noted before, the kerogen pathway is generic.

      On Earth it starts out with organic remains, but elsewhere (say Vesta), it could be during differentiation when complex organics from aggregated dust and asteroids was chemically processed.

      That is how the original carbon minerals started out in our crust too, it wasn’t originally populated with life maintaining a carbon cycle.

      If DNA was common, it or rather its broken down remains would have been found on interplanetary dust particles. It hasn’t, so it isn’t. I have never heard the scientific community to be “waiting” for such an observation.

      • metamaterials October 29, 2011, 2:42 PM

        that is a cook book recipe for making organic compounds in outer space. they form naturally and easier then we can conjure. complex organics are produced in far greater mass abundances simply from the biological processes of living things. there is respiration, transpiration, and excretions. cosmic dust with complex organic waste products, does not contain dna because it breaks down at high enough temperatures, but in space when stars produce buckyballs, dna self-assembles and low lesser life forms replicate everywhere under sudden favorable conditions for their life, and they fill interstellar space with organic by-products wastes, such as Methane, ammonias in the Orion nebulae were detected. Water that contacts graphene will remain liquid near absolute zero temperature, so these ribosomal nanotubes bridge the border between the living and the non-living carbon based life. Once the IR telescope is built, we will find DNA, many scientists believe.

    • HeadAroundU October 30, 2011, 4:32 PM

      Yeah, your pseudo-science mom.

      • metamaterials November 2, 2011, 12:50 AM

        earth is filled with organic wastes flushed underground cause they build up so fast. complex organics are simply floating in the zero gravity ISM cesspool, flushed out into outer space from planets and carbon nanotubes. NO PROOF GIVEN WHY THE ORGANICS CAME FROM STARS AND NOT LOWER LIFE FORMS eg bacteria, algae, viruses REPLICATING EXCRETING PROVEN LIVING WASTES like methane, ammonia. DNA self~assembly on carbon nanotubes ribosomal functional equivalents in outer space conditions, is plenty sufficient for me to believe that the interstellar medium is filled with cr$$ not made by stars from an organic chem lab textbook, but from living low life forms that like on earth found a way to survive anywhere despite inhospitable conditions temp pressure etc Life is cheap on earth and filled with defiled parasites viruses bacteria that cr## out a lot more complex organics then you think

  • d.w. kobza October 29, 2011, 5:55 AM

    wow! maybe the whole universe is alive with some cosmic sentience.

    • Anonymous October 29, 2011, 11:38 AM

      A cosmic conscious that big would take many years to get one neuron fired because of the distances between the neurons. It would never have noticed the human civilisation. And even if it could think faster, it would not be aware that there are 7 billion microbes trying to contact it. Unless you think that you noticed that bacteria in your body called George that prays everyday to you.

      • metamaterials October 29, 2011, 2:32 PM

        The amount of time passage for larger scale living processes, such as the neuronal cosmic web of filaments, is relative to the size of the observer, and does not matter to nature. human neurons would be just as slow to fire with the brief existing particles inside our brains where tiny particles could support intelligent life that to them live a long time.

  • HiEverybody October 29, 2011, 10:20 AM

    Could be the panspermia that we have been looking for.

    • HeadAroundU October 30, 2011, 4:32 PM

      Yeah, in my balls.

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