This molecule, a component of the lipid membranes that protect biological cells, could serve as a prebiotic feedstock to seed the evolution of life on other planets (Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. U.S.A. 2021, DOI: 10.1073/pnas.2101314118).
Cellular membranes are made from a double layer of phospholipid molecules, with water-soluble heads on the outside and fatty tails on the interior. This structure holds the membrane together and keeps most molecules from entering the cell. Phosphatidylethanolamines are among the most common phospholipids and found in Escherichia coli.
A team led by Víctor M. Rivilla of Spain’s National Institute of Aerospace Technology and the Arcetri Astrophysical Observatory detected the infrared signature of ethanolamine in the Sagittarius B2 molecular cloud.
Ethanolamine has previously been found in a meteorite, but it wasn’t clear how it formed and whether that chemistry could be widespread, Rivilla says. By contrast, he says, the presence of the molecule in the gas cloud shows that ethanolamine is abundant in space. “This means that the natal material of solar and planetary systems contain large quantities of ethanolamine,” Rivilla says in an email.
“Even if the conditions for the birth of life are very demanding,” he says, the chances of it arising improve if one possible ingredient is widely available.