Magazine article Science News

Molecular Handedness Discovered in Space

Magazine article Science News

Molecular Handedness Discovered in Space

Article excerpt

A possible clue about why life on Earth chooses only one mirror-image form of certain molecules lies in a gas cloud tens of thousands of light-years away.

For the first time, researchers have detected a chiral molecule, propylene oxide, in interstellar space. Chiral molecules, which come in two mirror-image versions, show up in many of life's building blocks, such as amino acids and sugars. The finding may be a step toward understanding why life prefers one of these versions over the other.

The results were presented June 14 and published in the June 17 Science.

The two forms of a chiral molecule are like opposing hands. Left hands and right hands mirror each other, but no amount of turning will get them to match when overlaid. A chiral molecule's two configurations are labeled as either left-handed or right-handed.

Amino acids and sugars come in both styles of handedness. But life on Earth exclusively uses left-handed amino acids and right-handed sugars. "This is one of the longest-standing mysteries in the origin of life," Caltech chemist Brett McGuire said at a news briefing.

Chiral molecules have shown up in meteorites with a slight preference for one configuration. McGuire and colleagues went looking for chiral molecules in space to see whether some interstellar intervention could preferentially seed a solar system with one handedness. …

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