Observations of interstellar formamide: Availability of a prebiotic precursor in the galactic habitable zone

Gilles R. Adande, Neville J. Woolf, Lucy M. Ziurys

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

65 Scopus citations


We conducted a study on interstellar formamide, NH2CHO, toward star-forming regions of dense molecular clouds, using the telescopes of the Arizona Radio Observatory (ARO). The Kitt Peak 12 m antenna and the Submillimeter Telescope (SMT) were used to measure multiple rotational transitions of this molecule between 100 and 250 GHz. Four new sources of formamide were found [W51M, M17 SW, G34.3, and DR21(OH)], and complementary data were obtained toward Orion-KL, W3(OH), and NGC 7538. From these observations, column densities for formamide were determined to be in the range of 1.1×1012 to 9.1×1013 cm-2, with rotational temperatures of 70-177 K. The molecule is thus present in warm gas, with abundances relative to H2 of 1×10-11 to 1×10-10. It appears to be a common constituent of star-forming regions that foster planetary systems within the galactic habitable zone, with abundances comparable to that found in comet Hale-Bopp. Formamide's presence in comets and molecular clouds suggests that the compound could have been brought to Earth by exogenous delivery, perhaps with an infall flux as high as ∼0.1 mol/km2/yr or 0.18 mmol/m2 in a single impact. Formamide has recently been proposed as a single-carbon, prebiotic source of nucleobases and nucleic acids. This study suggests that a sufficient amount of NH 2CHO could have been available for such chemistry.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)439-453
Number of pages15
Issue number5
StatePublished - May 1 2013


  • Astrobiology
  • Comets
  • Formamide
  • ISM
  • Meteorites
  • Radioastronomy

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Agricultural and Biological Sciences (miscellaneous)
  • Space and Planetary Science


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