Science and Technology Facilities Council
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Sweet molecule could lead us to alien life

Scientists have detected an organic sugar molecule that is directly linked to the origin of life, in a region of our galaxy where habitable planets could exist. The discovery, part funded by the UK’s Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC), is published today (25th November) on the Astro-ph website.

The international team of researchers, including a researcher at University College London (UCL), used the IRAM radio telescope in France to detect the molecule in a massive star forming region of space, some 26000 light years from Earth.

Dr Serena Viti, one of the paper’s authors from University College London, said, "This is an important discovery as it is the first time glycolaldehyde, a basic sugar, has been detected towards a star-forming region where planets that could potentially harbour life may exist."

The molecule – glycolaldehyde - has previously only been detected towards the centre of our galaxy where conditions are extreme compared to the rest of the galaxy. This new discovery, in an area far from the galactic centre, also suggests that the production of this key ingredient for life could be common throughout the galaxy. This is good news in our search for alien life, as a wide spread of the molecule improves the chances of it existing along side other molecules vital to life and in regions where Earth-like planets may exist.

The team were able to detect glycolaldehyde by using the telescope to observe the region with high-angular resolution and at different wavelengths. The observations confirmed the presence of three lines of glycolaldegyde towards the most central part of the core of the region

Glycolaldehyde, the simplest of the monosaccharide sugars, can react with the substance propenal to form ribose, a central constituent of Ribonucleic acid (RNA), thought to be the central molecule in the origin of life.

Professor Keith Mason, Chief Executive of the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC), said, "The discovery of an organic sugar molecule in a star forming region of space is very exciting and will provide incredibly useful information in our search for alien life. Research like this, combined with the vast array of other astronomical projects involving UK researchers, is continually expanding our knowledge of the Universe and keeping the UK at the forefront of astronomy."

Notes for editors


Julia Short

STFC Press Office

Tel: + 44 (0)1793 442 012

Mob: + 44 (0)777 027 6721


Dr Serena Viti

Reader and AF

Dept of Physics and Astronomy

University College London

Tel: +44 (0)20 7679 3435


The paper will also be published in the Astrophysical Journal Letters publication

The international team of scientists are from:

• The Universitat de Barcelona-CSIC, Barcelona

• INAF-Istituto di Radioastronomia and INAF-Osservatorio Astrofisico di Arcetri in Florence

• University College London

• Institute de Radiastronomie Millimétrique, Grenoble

The massive star forming region where the sugar molecules were detected is known as G31.41+0.31

For more information on the Institut de RadioAstronomie Millimétrique (IRAM), please visit

Online version of the Astrophysical Journal paper:

About STFC

The Science and Technology Facilities Council is an independent, non-departmental public body of the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills (DIUS).

We were formed as a new Research Council on 1 April 2007 through a merger of the Council for the Central Laboratory of the Research Councils (CCLRC) and the Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council (PPARC) and the transfer of responsibility for nuclear physics from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC). We are one of seven national research councils in the UK.

STFC is a science-driven organisation. We make it possible for a broad range of scientists to do the highest quality research tackling some of the most fundamental scientific questions.

We do this by:

• funding researchers in universities directly through grants particularly in astronomy, particle physics, space science and nuclear physics.

• providing in the UK access to world-class facilities, including ISIS, the Synchrotron Radiation Source (SRS which closed in 2008), the Central Laser Facility, and HPCx. We are also a major stakeholder in the Diamond Light Source, which started operating this year.

• providing in the UK a broad range of scientific and technical expertise in space and ground-based astronomy technologies, microelectronics, wafer scale manufacturing, particle and nuclear physics, alternative energy production, radio communications and radar.

providing access to world-class facilities overseas, including through CERN, the European Space Agency (ESA), the European Southern Observatory (ESO), the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility (ESRF), the Institut Laue-Langevin (ILL) and telescope facilities in Chile, Hawaii, La Palma, Australia and the MERLIN/VLBI National Facility, which includes the Lovell Telescope at Jodrell Bank Observatory.

We supply highly skilled scientists and engineers and generate ideas and technologies that have a much broader social and economic impact.

We encourage researchers to create new businesses based on their discoveries and we help established companies to use the fruits of our research as the basis of new or improved products and services.

Our staff are deployed at 7 locations, namely: Swindon where the headquarters is based; the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory, which is part of the Harwell Science and Innovation Campus in Oxfordshire; the Daresbury Laboratory, which is part of the Daresbury Science and Innovation Campus in Cheshire; the Chilbolton Observatory in Hampshire; the UK Astronomy Technology Centre in Edinburgh; the Isaac Newton Group of Telescopes on La Palma in the Canary Islands; and the Joint Astronomy Centre in Hawaii.

The Council distributes public money from the Government to support scientific research. Between 2008 and 2009 we will invest approximately £787 million.

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