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Building blocks of life found in a galaxy 12 billion light years away

The cosmos, and the building blocks of life, just got a little more complex. A team of scientists led by Professor Joaquin Vieira and graduate student Kedar Phadke from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, in partnership with Texas A&M University, have discovered complex organic molecules in a galaxy 12 billion light-years from Earth. This makes it the furthest galaxy to harbor these molecules known to date. 

Their findings, published in the journal Nature, open a new window into understanding the intricate chemical processes that took place in the early universe’s first galaxies.

How the discovery was made

How did they make this astonishing discovery? The experts utilized the recently deployed James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), coupled with rigorous data analysis. 

“This project started when I was in graduate school studying hard-to-detect, very distant galaxies obscured by dust,” said Vieira.

The dust grains in these galaxies absorb and re-emit approximately half of the stellar radiation in the universe, rendering the infrared light from distant objects incredibly faint and often undetectable by ground-based telescopes.

In this mind-blowing research, the team took advantage of what they term “nature’s magnifying glass,” a phenomenon known as gravitational lensing, to identify the building blocks of life.

“This magnification happens when two galaxies are almost perfectly aligned from the Earth’s point of view, and light from the background galaxy is warped and magnified by the foreground galaxy into a ring-like shape, known as an Einstein ring,” explained Vieira.

What the astronomers were focused on

Their attention honed in on an object named SPT0418-47, initially discovered using the National Science Foundation’s South Pole Telescope. This object had previously been classified as a dust-obscured galaxy, magnified by gravitational lensing. 

Located 12 billion light-years from Earth, SPT0418-47 hails from a period when the universe was a mere 10 percent of its present age or less than 1.5 billion years old. “Before having access to the combined power of gravitational lensing and the JWST, we could neither see nor spatially resolve the actual background galaxy through all of the dust,” said Vieira.

Through analyzing spectroscopic data from the JWST, the team found signs of heavy elements within the obscured interstellar gas of SPT0418-47. This discovery hints that generations of stars, along with building blocks of life, have come and gone within the galaxy. 

JWST once again proves to be a game-changer

The researchers identified a specific compound, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon (PAH), a molecule found on Earth in substances like combustion engine exhaust or forest fire smoke. PAHs, made of carbon chains, are considered fundamental building blocks of life — the earliest forms of life.

Graduate student Phadke shares his enthusiasm about the research: “What this research is telling us right now – and we are still learning – is that we can see all of the regions where these smaller dust grains are located – regions that we could never see before the JWST.” 

The new spectroscopic data paints a vivid picture of the galaxy’s atomic and molecular composition, giving us invaluable insights into galaxy formation, their lifecycle, and how they evolve.

Research team is surprised and ready for the next step

The team was pleasantly surprised by the outcome of their research. “Detecting these complex organic molecules at such a vast distance is game-changing regarding future observations,” said Vieira. “This work is just the first step, and we’re just now learning how to use it and learn its capabilities. We are very excited to see how this plays out.”

“It’s extremely cool that galaxies I discovered while writing my thesis would one day be observed by the JWST. I am grateful to the U.S. taxpayers, the NSF, and NASA for funding and supporting both the SPT and the JWST. Without these instruments, this discovery could have never been made.”

Vieira also serves as the director of the Center for AstroPhysical Surveys (CAPS), funded by the National Center for Supercomputing Applications at Illinois, while Phadke is a CAPS graduate fellow.

This remarkable discovery, finding the building blocks of life 12 billion light years away, is a testament to the capabilities of the JWST, which is operated by the Space Telescope Science Institute under the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy, Inc., and its management through NASA contract NAS 5-03127.

As we continue to explore the mysteries of the universe, the discovery of complex organic molecules in galaxies so incredibly distant reminds us of the importance of continued investment in space technology and research. 

As the researchers continue to dissect the data gathered by the JWST, one can only wonder what other groundbreaking discoveries lie ahead. In the vast expanse of space, we’ve only just begun to scratch the surface.

More about the building blocks of life

Life as we know it relies on a few key molecular ingredients. These essential building blocks of life include water, amino acids, nucleic acids, and lipids, along with a variety of other organic compounds.


Water is vital to all known forms of life, acting as a solvent in which many biochemical reactions take place. It helps in the transportation of nutrients and waste products between our body cells and the environment.

Amino Acids

Amino acids are the building blocks of proteins, which are crucial to all biological structures and functions. Proteins are involved in nearly every function of a cell, including structure, function, and regulation of the body’s tissues and organs.

Nucleic Acids

Nucleic acids, DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) and RNA (ribonucleic acid), hold the genetic information for all living organisms. DNA carries the instructions for the structure and functioning of all cells, while RNA helps to translate these instructions into proteins.


Lipids, including fats and cholesterol, have several important roles. They provide energy, form the cell membrane, and contribute to the functioning of the nervous system. They also play a crucial role in hormone production.

Sugars and Carbohydrates 

Sugars, including simple sugars (monosaccharides) and complex sugars (polysaccharides), provide energy to cells and help to build structures like cell walls in plants.

Vitamins and Minerals

Vitamins are organic compounds, and minerals are inorganic. Both types of nutrients are necessary for the body to function properly. They play a role in various biological processes, including cell development, digestion, and metabolism.

The mention of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) in the press release relates to the fact that these compounds are made up of carbon rings. Carbon is a fundamental element in all organic life, and PAHs, while not typically considered a building block of life, could possibly play a role in the formation of life due to their carbon-rich nature. 

On Earth, PAHs can form through natural processes like forest fires or human activities such as the burning of fossil fuels. Their detection in a distant galaxy could suggest similar chemical processes occurring in extraterrestrial environments.

The discovery of such organic molecules and the building blocks of life in a galaxy far, far away might not directly imply life as we know it. Still, it does suggest that the universe might be more chemically diverse and conducive to life than we previously imagined.


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