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Physical Chemistry

Glycine Found In Comet

Discovery suggests molecules necessary to create life may be widespread throughout the universe

by Elizabeth K. Wilson
August 24, 2009 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 87, Issue 34

Scientists have detected the simplest amino acid, glycine, in the particles of matter gathered from the comet Wild 2 by the Stardust spacecraft, which returned samples to Earth. Because glycine is one of the building blocks of proteins, its presence in comets strengthens the idea that the molecules necessary to create life may be widespread throughout the universe. Astronomer Jamie Elsila of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, in Greenbelt, Md., announced the discovery, which is slated to appear in an upcoming issue of the journal Meteoritics & Planetary Science. Although astronomers have long suspected that glycine could be formed through the exotic, icy chemistry of space, its identification has proven elusive. The amino acid’s complexity makes spectral examination extremely difficult. And even though astronomers have for decades searched avidly for glycine in interstellar space, the few instances of detection reported have been contested and even retracted. The identification of glycine in Stardust’s aerogel-based detectors suggests that, at least in comets, such chemistry is possible.


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