Seeding Planets for Life

A month in space: A patch of sky in the constellation of Boötes

We’re a little late to class: each speck above  is a galaxy in a patch of sky about 40 times the area of the full moon, recorded by the Herschel telescope.  Most are so far away that they are seen as they were between 3 and 10 billion years ago (Hilaire, Kingsland;

This isn’t breaking news, but it’s still interesting:  the Royal Astronomical Society announced last year that super-complex molecules of 24 atoms have been found in interstellar space.

An astronomer yesterday (Illustration: Exupery)

A few years ago in 2004 it was revealed in Astrophysics Journal, that organic molecules of nine atoms in size had been spotted, bringing the total number of molecules found in space at that point to 141 :

A two-year survey of enormous interstellar dust clouds has turned up eight organic molecules in two different regions of space. One is a stellar nursery awash in light while the other is a cold, starless void.

The finding, detailed in the current issue of Astrophysical Journal, supports other recent studies suggesting molecules important for life commonly form in the gas and dust clouds that condense to form stars and planets.

The molecules were discovered using the Robert C. Byrd Green Bank Telescope (GBT), a large radio telescope located in West Virginia.


“Finding eight [organic] molecules in the space of two years is quite remarkable,” said study leader Jan Hollis of NASA Goddard Space Flight Center.

The newly discovered molecules are made up of 6 to 11 atoms each and are classified as organic because they contain carbon.

Five of the molecules were discovered in Sagittarius B2(N), a star-forming dust cloud located 26,000 light-years from Earth near the center of the Milky Way Galaxy. This stellar nursery is the largest known repository of complex interstellar molecules.

The other three molecules were found in the Taurus Molecular Cloud (TMC-1), located only 450 light-years away. TMC-1 is starless; it is cold and dark and has a temperature of only 10 degrees above absolute zero.

“The discovery of these large organic molecules in the coldest regions of the interstellar medium has certainly changed the belief that large organic molecules would only have their origins in hot molecular cores,” said study team member Anthony Remijan of the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO). “It has forced us to rethink the paradigms of interstellar chemistry.” of the molecules found in Sagittarius B2(N), called acetamide, contains a type of chemical bond important for linking together amino acids, the molecular building blocks of proteins.

Made up of 9 atoms, acetamide “is the largest molecule found in space that has that bond,” Hollis told


If organic molecules are found in huge quantities in space, suddenly the origin of life is less of a fluke.  What better way to guarantee a planet is seeded with life than for vast clouds of these molecules to accompany the formation of the stars which gave birth to it?  Perhaps this mechanism even guarantees that life forms on different planets are chemically matched to their particular star.  Perhaps you could tell from a creature’s biochemical makeup what kind of star system it came from!  Or perhaps not.

But in any case, it seems to show the origin of life was not left to a fluke occurrence in a gaseous pond of methane by a volcano during a lightning storm, or whatever the current theory is, but made overwhelmingly certain by drenching the planets, at a certain stage, with organic molecules.

Put them all together and what do you get? A ribosome of course – a protein factory. Illustration by David S Goodsell, author of The Machinery of Life

I always imagined that planetary life must have emerged in discrete, preparatory stages in much the same way that its components arose from cells, which arose from proteins, which arose from amino acids, which arose from atoms, which arose from who knows what.  Each layer is a different classification because it contains something not present in the previous one: a rigid order and arrangement, something which could never have been predicted by looking at the qualities of the previous level.

Seeing a small cluster of atoms, who could predict the mighty ribosome?  Even looking at a completed cell – a buzzing hive of tape recorders, chainsaws, factories, scaffolding, delivery boys, traffic wardens, customs officers, changing rooms, tollbooths and parking depots, who can imagine the next step being a thinking creature, one so far removed from the scale of the cell that he has no indication that he is anything but what he sees – a seamless construction, with no awareness about what goes on down there at speeds a million times quicker than he can think?  The previous level of organisation is completely hidden in size and speed.  He sits and tries to figure out the workings of the Universe, sure of the ground on which he stands.

But on the cosmic plane, his whole planet is no more than a tiny speck, invisible to anyone living around even the next star over, one more out of billions in a galaxy whose shape and activity is completely hidden from him.  Even with the whole galaxy in the palm of our hand, time and space shrunk to such a degree that a thousand years passes in a second for us to observe at our leisure, like some curious God, we find it behaves not as it should, because of dark matter and energy hidden view, and a hundred billion other galaxies still beyond our reach.  Such a strange Universe, with so many hidden chambers and mysterious veils!  Yet here we all are, stuck tight in a tiny slice of it, we know not how, a lifespan of a few moments, arguing confidently as if we know all we need to know – as if seeing half a second of Gone With The Wind would be plenty enough to understand all its drama, social setting, summers and winters, justice and injustice, and the destiny of a whole country, and its characters, and all their life stories, and hours-long arcs of plot and intrigue contained in the entire film, a tiny slice of which is shown openly to our senses, yet its interpretation and context remaining a matter for idle speculation.

It looks so tranquil, so pristine.. a warm shelter from deadly radiation, supplied with air, water, fruits, crops, scenes of stunning beauty, on a gentle ride between the icy depths and the ferocious infernos.  Hard to believe a primitive race is down there fighting to the death over it and cursing God; no doubt a range of precautions exist to prevent the trashing of a planet, but they’re not likely to be gentle (photo: Anders/Lovell, NASA)

It seems that the first kind of plants, strange, simple flat fern-like things growing underwater are thought to have created various essential gases over unimaginable spans of time, after which that particular kind of plant vanished, never to be seen again.  The interesting thing about changing the components of the atmosphere is that anything you put into it affects the whole thing as one unit: proposed machines for reducing greenhouse gases can be sited anywhere on Earth, and they’ll have the same effect everywhere.

Predictably, this stage-by-stage concept has long been confirmed by experts, but how pleasant to have one’s imaginings bolstered by those who really know what they’re doing:

“Our research shows that land plants and fungi evolved much earlier than previously thought–before the Snowball Earth and Cambrian Explosion events–suggesting their presence could have had a profound effect on the climate and the evolution of life on Earth,” says Blair Hedges, an evolutionary biologist and leader of the Penn State research team that performed the study.

The researchers found that land plants had evolved on Earth by about 700 million years ago and land fungi by about 1,300 million years ago–much earlier than previous estimates of around 480 million years ago, which were based on the earliest fossils of those organisms.

Hedges and his research team made their surprising discoveries studying as many of the genes as possible of their descendants–the species of plants and fungi living today. They began by sifting through their molecular fingerprints–the unique sequences of amino-acid building blocks–in many thousands of genes from hundreds of species archived in the public gene-sequence databases.


As for the dinosaurs, what better way to fertilise the planet than hardy, well armoured creatures which don’t spend all day on laptops or contemplating existentialism but eating and reproducing and carrying seeds from vegetation everywhere in their waste output.

Then at a certain time, those forms faded away through whatever disaster overtook them, after which the planet’s ecosystem was in a very different condition than on their arrival.  The very fact that we assign different eras to history shows the quantum nature of planetary evolution: the Jurassic was distinct from the Permian, Devonian and Cambrian, and so on, because they represented different conditions entirely.  The Cambrian era was populated with life forms that strangely had no precedent.  There was no gradual accumulation: they appeared fully formed, in evolutionary terms, overnight.  It was assumed the accumulations would be seen in previous fossil layers, but all those studied, for example in the Burgess Shale, seemed to show nothing, so it was supposed that conditions must not have been just right for fossil formation in those locations.

Cambrian life, recreation from Morocco fossil.  Photo: Esben Horn

Some paleontologists still search for the fossil precursors to the Cambrian forms, but most now suspect they will never be found for one very good reason – they never existed.  Where a complete fossil strata, located finally in China, was found to have faithfully recorded traces of the previous era’s life forms, all that were seen were small, sponge-like forms which bore no relation to the fantastic creatures that followed.  An exhaustive search turned up nothing.

If history had been just one steady incremental progression, the ages could never be clearly separated in such a way.  Once again we see discrete quantum jumps, but on an almost unimaginable scale.  If organic molecules appear in star factories, then this is another surprise for the intellect, because it turns the arena of life which we assumed was limited to Earth, into the Universe at large, a phenomenal change in concept.

Dinosaurs raising methane through flatulence: I’d give it five million years if I were you

Anyway, back to the Royal Astronomical Society article, which reveals the discovery of molecules made of 24 atoms, a significant molecule indeed:

‘We have detected the presence of anthracene molecules in a dense cloud in the direction of the star Cernis 52 in Perseus, about 700 light years from the Sun,’ explains Susana Iglesias Groth, the IAC researcher heading the study.

In her opinion, the next step is to investigate the presence of amino acids. Molecules like anthracene are prebiotic, so when they are subjected to ultraviolet radiation and combined with water and ammonia, they could produce amino acids and other compounds essential for the development of life.


Fanciful Greek Mythology, telescopes, frighteningly large molecules, a rainbow, and a diagram of how to get there

‘Two years ago,’ says Iglesias, ‘we found proof of the existence of another organic molecule, naphthalene, in the same place, so everything indicates that we have discovered a star formation region rich in prebiotic chemistry.’ Until now, anthracene had been detected only in meteorites and never in the interstellar medium. Oxidized forms of this molecule are common in living systems and are biochemically active. On our planet, oxidized anthracene is a basic component of aloe and has anti-inflammatory properties.

The new finding suggests that a good part of the key components in terrestrial prebiotic chemistry could be present in interstellar matter.


The job of a star besides holding planets in predictable state is to support life: definitive proof of this was revealed in 1962 by a researcher who looked out of a window.  But if star nurseries also produce the molecules required for life, how long will it be before it dawns on us that the Universe must be absolutely teeming with life, and always has been – not by chance, but by design?

The difficulty with getting mainstream science to accept this is much like the difficulty of getting the mainstream media to label an outright massacre as such, and not a run-of-the-mill NATO exercise causing “collateral damage”.  The problem is a mind unable to see reality.  Consider this quote from Prof Watson, from the School of Environmental Sciences, who is certain intelligent life is highly unlikely, despite seeing it everywhere from the end of his nose to Antarctica, because each required step must be performed exactly in sequence.  One could declare the successful boiling of an egg to be a feat highly unlikely to be repeated for the exact same reasons, and be wrong in exactly the same way:

According to Prof Watson a limit to evolution is the habitability of Earth, and any other Earth-like planets, which will end as the sun brightens. Solar models predict that the brightness of the sun is increasing, while temperature models suggest that because of this the future life span of Earth will be ‘only’ about another billion years, a short time compared to the four billion years since life first appeared on the planet.

“At present, Earth is the only example we have of a planet with life. If we learned the planet would be habitable for a set period and that we had evolved early in this period, then even with a sample of one, we’d suspect that evolution from simple to complex and intelligent life was quite likely to occur. By contrast, we now believe that we evolved late in the habitable period, and this suggests that our evolution is rather unlikely. In fact, the timing of events is consistent with it being very rare indeed.”

His logic is so flawed it’s hard to know where to begin: with an example in front of him in which life naturally arose very early in the planet’s formation – less than 500m years – he feels this is an improbable event.  The more obvious conclusion is that it is a natural event, aided by Nature, promoted by the existence of a sun, and by every helpful step along the way.  In fact the only sensible conclusion must be that life arises very early in a planet’s career, and therefore may well have done so in every solar system throughout the universe – virtually thousands of billions.

What he is really saying is that he doesn’t know how life evolved, that he doesn’t understand the mechanisms, and so can’t see it as a natural process; all he sees are the difficulties, instead of life’s colossal and repeated successes in the face of difficulties.  His randomisation has pushed even his own existence – already an obvious reality – into the nether regions of impossibility.  It is such a strange way to view life.

Prof Watson suggests the number of evolutionary steps needed to create intelligent life, in the case of humans, is four. These probably include the emergence of single-celled bacteria, complex cells, specialized cells allowing complex life forms, and intelligent life with an established language.

“Complex life is separated from the simplest life forms by several very unlikely steps and therefore will be much less common. Intelligence is one step further, so it is much less common still,” said Prof Watson.

Remember in his sample of one, he has already seen all these steps proceeding naturally, in order, despite the odds against them – indicating not that the sequence is unlikely, since it has already happened naturally, but that the Universe must be somehow slanted towards life!  The only unlikelihood I can see is that this professor at the School of Environmental Sciences would be able to teach anything of any real use.  I can imagine sittnig through one of his dreary lectures after another, having the idea hammered home that life is a random and unlikely event.  What a terrible way to waste some of the most fertile years of one’s brain.

His model, published in the journal Astrobiology, suggests an upper limit for the probability of each step occurring is 10 per cent or less, so the chances of intelligent life emerging is low – less than 0.01 per cent over four billion years.

Each step is independent of the other and can only take place after the previous steps in the sequence have occurred.  They tend to be evenly spaced through Earth’s history and this is consistent with some of the major transitions identified in the evolution of life on Earth.


Our telescopes are becoming more sensitive to the tiny fluctuations around stars, indicating planetary orbits; to the astonishment of astonomers, planets of all kinds seem to be common all through our galaxy.  They’re part of the overall pattern – if you don’t like the word “design” !  And therefore common throughout other galaxies too, of which there are at least a hundred billion.

Either way, one thing we know from our telescopes is the Universe does things in a big, big way; something else we should know from life on Earth is that it does them with infinite beauty and uncanny precision, and endless patience.

“If you could fly to France in one minute, you could go straight into the sunset, right from noon. Unfortunately, France is too far away for that. But on your tiny planet, my little prince, all you need do is move your chair a few steps. You can see the day end and the twilight falling whenever you like…
“One day,” you said to me, “I saw the sunset forty-four times!”
And a little later you added:
“You know — one loves the sunset, when one is so sad…”
“Were you so sad, then?” I asked, “on the day of the forty-four sunsets?”
But the little prince made no reply.

About iain carstairs

I have a great interest in both scientific advances and the beauty of religion, and created about 15 years ago with the aim of finding common ground between the scientist and the believer, and to encourage debate between the two sides.
This entry was posted in Dinosaurs, Evolution, Interstellar Molecules, Planetary Evolution, Ribosome, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Seeding Planets for Life

  1. Nandakumar says:

    Enjoyed the article, great write up. Love the closing statement, “Either way, one thing we know from our telescopes is the Universe does things in a big, big way; something else we should know from life on Earth is that it does them with infinite beauty and uncanny precision, and endless patience.”

    • A full afternoon on “Rebranding Atheism”, but take half an hour to stick a picture of a telescope amid some year-old quotes, and people are delighted! Where’s the justice? One day I’ll get the hang of blogging

  2. donsalmon says:

    it only took you one afternoon to put together “Rebranding Atheism”?? Sheesh ,it would have been a week for me, minimum, for anything like that! Anyway, shouldn’t judge the value of a post based on responses. I loved the “rebranding” post.

  3. Thanks! I’m encouraged! My style is not very sophisticated but I can write flat out at maybe 2,000 words an hour – I didn’t do Uni but sometimes I would write essays for my friends who did; they’d need 3,000 words on something I knew zip about but a quick bit of research and they would have it back just after lunch. I tried to write at a B level so nobody would get jealous, and I’d vary the styles and country of their origin. They all did well in their careers, they just didn’t know how to write very well and would get incredibly stressed about it.

    It was interesting to me, because I found I could write from the point of view of the person I was writing for, though I don’t know how. I just imagined I was them, and the essay came out straightaway. I once tried to write to help someone I didn’t care for very much and I found I just couldn’t do it, it was painful. Technically I should have a degree in art history, interior design, creative photography and midwifery!

  4. Pingback: As Smart As Molecules! |

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