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Complex organic molecules discovered surrounding newborn star

In an intriguing blend of celestial chemistry and the quest for understanding the origins of potentially habitable worlds, NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) has made a significant discovery of complex organic molecules surrounding two young protostars, IRAS 2A and IRAS 23385.

Utilizing the Mid-Infrared Instrument (MIRI) on the JWST, an international team of astronomers has detected a variety of icy compounds, including complex organic molecules such as ethanol (commonly found in alcohol) and possibly acetic acid (a component of vinegar).

This discovery builds upon previous findings of diverse ices within a cold, dark molecular cloud, marking an important step forward in our understanding of cosmic chemistry.

Complex organic molecules in the cosmos

The presence of complex organic molecules (COMs) in solid ice, as observed in this study, suggests they originate from the sublimation of ices — transitioning directly from a solid state to gas without becoming liquid.

The detection of these COMs in ice is particularly exciting for astronomers, as it hints at a deeper understanding of how even larger molecules in space are formed.

One of the intriguing aspects of this research is the potential transportation of these COMs to planets during later stages of protostellar evolution. Ices containing COMs are believed to be more easily transported from molecular clouds to planet-forming disks than their warm, gaseous counterparts.

This means they could be incorporated into comets and asteroids, which may eventually collide with forming planets, delivering the essential ingredients for life.

In addition to complex molecules, the science team also identified simpler substances such as formic acid (responsible for the burning sensation of an ant sting), methane, formaldehyde, and sulfur dioxide. The latter, a sulfur-containing compound, is thought to have played a crucial role in driving metabolic reactions on early Earth.

Journey from ices to planets

Particularly noteworthy is the low-mass protostar IRAS 2A, which may mirror the early stages of our own solar system. The chemicals found around IRAS 2A suggest that similar compounds were present during the initial development of our solar system and may have been delivered to early Earth.

“All of these molecules can become part of comets and asteroids and eventually new planetary systems when the icy material is transported inward to the planet-forming disk as the protostellar system evolves,” said Ewine van Dishoeck of Leiden University, one of the coordinators of the science program. “We look forward to following this astrochemical trail step-by-step with more Webb data in the coming years.”

Implications and future research

In summary, NASA’s Webb Telescope has discovered the presence of complex organic molecules in the icy surrounds of young protostars, much like a cosmic recipe for life.

Through the meticulous work of an international team of astronomers and the pioneering capabilities of the Webb telescope, we now stand on the cusp of understanding how the ingredients for habitable worlds are scattered across the universe.

This important research deepens our knowledge of the chemical processes that predate planetary formation and holds the promise of uncovering the astrochemical pathways that lead to the birth of life-bearing planets.

As we continue to trace these cosmic breadcrumbs from icy comets to emerging planets, the legacy of discoveries like those around IRAS 2A and IRAS 23385 propels us forward in our quest to unravel the mysteries of our origins and the potential for life beyond Earth.

More about complex organic molecules (COMs)

As discussed above, complex organic molecules, often referred to as macromolecules, play a pivotal role in the structure and function of living organisms. These molecules are large, typically consisting of thousands of atoms, and are composed primarily of carbon atoms bonded with hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, and sometimes sulfur and phosphorus.

Types of complex organic molecules


Proteins are fundamental to the structure and function of all living cells. They are made up of amino acids linked together by peptide bonds, folding into specific three-dimensional shapes essential for their function. Proteins serve various roles, including acting as enzymes to catalyze biochemical reactions, as structural components of cells and tissues, and as antibodies in the immune response.

Nucleic Acids

Nucleic acids, comprising DNA and RNA, store and transmit genetic information within a cell. DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) contains the instructions for building and maintaining an organism, while RNA (ribonucleic acid) plays a critical role in translating these instructions into proteins. The structure of nucleic acids is a long chain of nucleotides, which include a sugar molecule, a phosphate group, and a nitrogenous base.


Carbohydrates are a primary source of energy for most organisms. They are composed of sugar molecules (monosaccharides) bonded together in chains (polysaccharides). Carbohydrates serve various functions, including energy storage (starch in plants, glycogen in animals), structural support (cellulose in plant cell walls), and cell recognition processes on the surface of cells.


Lipids are a diverse group of molecules that are insoluble in water due to their non-polar nature. They include fats, oils, waxes, phospholipids, and steroids. Lipids play critical roles in energy storage, forming cell membranes, and serving as signaling molecules. Fats and oils are triglycerides, composed of glycerol bonded to three fatty acids, and are a major energy reserve in many organisms.

Functions and significance

Complex organic molecules are essential for life as we know it. They provide the structural components of cells, mediate biochemical reactions, store and transmit genetic information, and supply the energy necessary for survival.

Understanding these molecules is fundamental to biology, medicine, and many other fields, as it allows us to comprehend the mechanisms of life, disease, and evolution.

Discovery in the cosmos

The discovery of COMs in space is a testament to the advancements in astronomical technology and techniques. Telescopes like NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope and observatories such as ALMA have detected these molecules in the gas and dust clouds that surround new stars, known as protostellar disks.

These environments, rich in a variety of organic compounds, provide the perfect laboratory for studying the chemical pathways that lead from simple to complex organic molecules.

The identification of COMs in these regions suggests that the conditions for life’s chemistry are not unique to Earth but can be found throughout the galaxy.

Role of COMs in planetary formation

The presence of COMs in protostellar environments is a key piece of the puzzle in understanding planetary formation. As stars form from collapsing clouds of gas and dust, the materials that orbit the young star gradually coalesce to form planets.

The COMs within these disks can become incorporated into comets, asteroids, and the planets themselves. When these bodies collide with or are captured by planets, they deliver their cargo of complex molecules, potentially seeding the planet with the ingredients necessary for life.

In summary, complex organic molecules are the cornerstone of biological systems, enabling the diverse forms of life on Earth. Their study sheds light on the basic principles of life but also has practical applications in healthcare, biotechnology, and environmental science.

As research advances, our understanding of these molecules continues to deepen, opening new avenues for scientific discovery and technological innovation.

The full study was published in the journal Astronomy & Astrophysics.


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