Floating in the middle of our galaxy, near the center of the Milky Way, inside a cloud of gas that swirls at the temperature of 100 Kelvin or -279.67 Fahrenheit, a molecule essential to life on Earth has just been discovered. It sounds inconceivable that such a level of cosmic cold could harbor anything remotely related to a living organism—and yet it does. In fact, without this molecule, humans—and all other breathing, growing things on the planet—would not be possible.
The molecule, which scientists have been trying to detect in space for decades, is carbonic acid, a precursor to amino acids, the basic building blocks of proteins. Its chemical formula is H2CO3. Hardly a household name, carbonic acid nonetheless is key to our capacity to breathe: It ferrets carbon dioxide from our blood into our lungs, where it can be exhaled into the atmosphere. It also plays important roles in various geological processes on Earth. An excess of the molecule in the oceans can lead to ocean acidification. “So while it’s important to life itself, it’s even more important in several atmospheric and geological processes,” says Miguel Sanz-Novo at the Spanish Astrobiology Centre in Madrid. Sanz-Novo’s team confirmed the presence of carbonic acid in space for the first time, publishing their findings in a pre-peer review site called Arxiv.
The findings bolster Panspermia, the theory that life on Earth takes its origin from space and that our planet was “seeded” by various cosmic molecules that took a ride on meteors and meteorites, which later gave rise to organisms.
“The discovery of carbonic acid in space certainly tells us that the chemical ingredients for life are present out there, in the gas that will form new stars and planetary systems,” says Víctor Rivilla, the primary investigator on the project. “So yes, they could have been incorporated into solar system objects such as comets and asteroids, which could have transported them to the early Earth, thus helping to cook the life recipe.” [Continue reading…]