Traces of an organic molecule essential for the development of life as we know it have been found in a multiple star system 400 lightyears away. The discovery could provide clues as to how life began on Earth.


Using the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array, astronomers observed multiple star system IRAS 16293-2422 in the star-forming region Rho Ophiuchi.

Results from the study revealed traces of the molecule methyl isocyanate at different wavelengths across the radio spectrum.

The discovery marks the first time this prebiotic molecule has been detected around a Sun-like protostar.

“This star system seems to keep on giving,” say Niels Ligterink of the Leiden Observatory and Audrey Coutens of University College London, who led one of the teams involved in the study.

“Following the discovery of sugars, we’ve now found methyl isocyanate.

This family of organic molecules is involved in the synthesis of peptides and amino acids, which, in the form of proteins, are the biological basis for life as we know it.”

Evidence for the presence of methyl isocyanate was found in the warm, dense inner regions of the dusty disc surrounding the young stars.

The molecule is also one of many that was found on the surface of Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko by the Rosetta mission.

Because Earth and the other planets in our Solar System formed from the material left over following the formation of the Sun, studying other stars like our own that are in their early stages can provide a model on which astronomers can piece together the history of our Solar System, including how life began on Earth.

"Besides detecting molecules we also want to understand how they are formed,” says Ligterink.

“Our laboratory experiments show that methyl isocyanate can indeed be produced on icy particles under very cold conditions that are similar to those in interstellar space.


“This implies that this molecule — and thus the basis for peptide bonds — is indeed likely to be present near most new young solar-type stars."


Iain Todd, BBC Sky at Night Magazine
Iain ToddScience journalist

Iain Todd is BBC Sky at Night Magazine's Content Editor. He fell in love with the night sky when he caught his first glimpse of Orion, aged 10.