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The 'R' in RNA is likely abundant in space, scientists say

The discovery that ribose can be created in space could give scientists a better understanding of how life formed on Earth, and the potential for it on other worlds.

By Stephen Feller
The 'R' in RNA is likely abundant in space, scientists say
RNA is thought to be the ancient precursor to the more complicated DNA, though life on Earth requires both. Understanding that its main ingredient, ribose, may have come to Earth in planetary ices gives new insight to the origins of life, scientists say. Photo by Andrii Vodolazhskyi/Shutterstock

WASHINGTON, April 8 (UPI) -- By simulating conditions in space, scientists in France say they found ribose -- the 'R' in RNA -- is potentially present throughout the universe.

Scientists have searched for the origins of ribose, the backbone of RNA essential for life on Earth, but had not found it in experiments until now.

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By treating a mixture of water, methanol and ammonia in a simulated environment similar to the late stages of solar nebula, the scientists created artificial cometary ice and employed new technology to analyze it.

The experiment, which has been done before without the sugar being found, suggests theories about the origins of RNA -- conditions on Earth are thought not have allowed its formation -- could be correct.

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"Our ice simulation is a very general process that can occur in molecular clouds as well as in protoplanetary disks," Cornelia Meinert, a researcher at the University of Nice Sophia Antipolis, told the L.A. Times. "It shows that the molecular building blocks of the potentially first genetic material are abundant in interstellar environments."

For the study, published in the journal Science, the scientists put water, methanol and ammonia in a vacuum, cooling it to minus 328 degrees Fahrenheit. The ice left behind was heated to room temperature, leaving a thin residue of cometary ice.

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In addition to amino acids, carboxylic acids and alcohols, the scientists detected ribose using a technique called multidimensional gas chromatography.

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Finding that ribose can be created in space offers a better understanding of life on Earth, as well as the potential for life on other worlds, scientists say.

"Our detection of ribose provides plausible insights into the chemical processes that could lead to formation of biologically relevant molecules in suitable planetary environments," the researchers wrote in the study.

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