The beginnings of the beginnings of life, the fundamental building blocks of DNA and RNA, have been detected in cosmic clouds near the center of the Milky Way galaxy, student researchers at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO) announced Thursday.

Using the Green Bank Telescope in West Virginia to look closely at the Sagittarius B2 molecular cloud, students detected the radio signals generated by rotational transitions of two prebiotic molecules, cyanomethanimine and ethanamine, key to the formation of DNA and the amino acid alanine.

"Finding these molecules in an interstellar gas cloud means that important building blocks for DNA and amino acids can 'seed' newly-formed planets with the chemical precursors for life," NRAO's Anthony Remijan said in an advisory.

The NRAO team has been searching for molecules in space for years, discovering radio signals from over 700 different molecules which have yet to be identified. One of them, researchers announced in 2001, is alcohol. Researchers have also detected sugar in Sagittarius B2.

To identify cyanomethanimine and ethanamine, the team used new technology to study both molecules' radio signals in the laboratory, then matched the data pattern to observations from signals in Sagittarius B2.

"We need to do further experiments to better understand how these reactions work, but it could be that some of the first key steps toward biological chemicals occurred on tiny ice grains," Remijan added.

This video is from the National Radio Astronomy Observatory, published Thursday, Feb. 28, 2013.

GBT's HCN Dimer Discovery from NRAO Outreach on Vimeo.


Photo: Courtesy, European Southern Observatory.