A rare chemical that helped DNA form may have come to Earth on comets from newborn stars, astronomers find
- Phosphorus is key in forming DNA and giving rise to life on Earth, but the element is rare in the universe.
- Scientists don't know how Earth got its phosphorus, but scientists just found phosphorus-carrying molecules forming around newborn stars.
- Researchers found the same molecules on a comet orbiting Jupiter.
- A new study suggests that comets from newborn stars may have delivered the life-giving element to Earth in the form of phosphorus monoxide.
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Phosphorus, an element that's key in forming DNA and fueling life on Earth, may have first arrived on the planet via comets from newborn stars.Since the element is extremely rare in the universe, its presence on Earth has been a long-standing mystery. But scientists at the European Southern Observatory (ESO) now suggest that phosphorus may have first arrived on Earth in the molecule phosphorus monoxide - phosphorus bonded with one oxygen molecule.
The discovery suggests comets could have carried phosphorus monoxide to Earth."Phosphorus is essential for life as we know it," Kathrin Altwegg, an author of the new study, said in a press release. "As comets most probably delivered large amounts of organic compounds to the Earth, the phosphorus monoxide found in comet 67P may strengthen the link between comets and life on Earth."
Phosphorus-carrying molecules form as stars are born
Using the Atacama Large Millimeter/Submillimeter Array (ALMA) in Chile, the scientists behind the new study looked at a star-forming region called AFGL 5142. Studying the wavelengths of light coming from that distant region allowed them to determine which kinds of molecules interact with that light.
They found phosphorus-carrying molecules forming around the new stars.
Stars are born when clouds of gas and dust collapse, giving into gravity and coalescing into new cosmic objects. When massive stars are still young, they send out flows of gas that open huge cavities in the clouds of interstellar dust around them.
Scientists think molecules with phosphorus begin to form on the walls of these cavities as they're pummeled with radiation from the young, massive stars.But even after pinpointing a potential origin for phosphorus-carrying molecules in the universe, a big question remained: How did those molecules travel to Earth?
Comets could have carried phosphorus monoxideThe researchers turned to data from a spacecraft called Rosetta, which orbited the 67P comet from August 2014 to September 2016.
Phosphorus monoxide can end up in comets after the walls of a newborn star's surrounding cavity collapse. The molecule can get trapped in frozen grains of dust that circle the new star, some of which eventually coalesce into comets.Astronomers think that comets may have delivered other chemical components of life, such as amino acids and even water, to early Earth as well. Phosphorus seems to be yet another life-giving element that the space snowballs brought when they pummeled the planet.
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