Prebiotic Chemical Evolution in the Astrophysical Context

L. M. Ziurys, G. R. Adande, J. L. Edwards, D. R. Schmidt, D. T. Halfen, N. J. Woolf

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

9 Scopus citations


An ever increasing amount of molecular material is being discovered in the interstellar medium, associated with the birth and death of stars and planetary systems. Radio and millimeter-wave astronomical observations, made possible by high-resolution laboratory spectroscopy, uniquely trace the history of gas-phase molecules with biogenic elements. Using a combination of both disciplines, the full extent of the cycling of molecular matter, from circumstellar ejecta of dying stars – objects which expel large amounts of carbon - to nascent solar systems, has been investigated. Such stellar ejecta have been found to exhibit a rich and varied chemical content. Observations demonstrate that this molecular material is passed onto planetary nebulae, the final phase of stellar evolution. Here the star sheds almost its entire original mass, becoming an ultraviolet-emitting white dwarf. Molecules such as H2CO, HCN, HCO+, and CCH are present in significant concentrations across the entire age span of such nebulae. These data suggest that gas-phase polyatomic, carbon-containing molecules survive the planetary nebula phase and subsequently are transported into the interstellar medium, seeding the chemistry of diffuse and then dense clouds. The extent of the chemical complexity in dense clouds is unknown, hindered by the high spectral line density. Organic species such as acetamide and methyl amine are present in such objects, and NH2CHO has a wide Galactic distribution. However, organophosphorus compounds have not yet been detected in dense clouds. Based on carbon and nitrogen isotope ratios, molecular material from the ISM appears to become incorporated into solar system planetesimals. It is therefore likely that interstellar synthesis influences prebiotic chemistry on planet surfaces.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)275-288
Number of pages14
JournalOrigins of Life and Evolution of Biospheres
Issue number1-2
StatePublished - Jun 6 2015


  • Circumstellar material
  • Interstellar molecules
  • Isotope ratios
  • Molecular clouds
  • Prebiotic gas-phase chemistry
  • Radio astronomy

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Space and Planetary Science


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