Phosphorus, a piece of DNA that can store energy, is considered to be a crucial ingredient for life and scientists are looking for it across the Universe to prove that there is extraterrestrial life as we know it here on Earth.
Basically, phosphorus can be found in DNA, and the compounds that are responsible for storing energy. Similarly, like ingredients you find in your favorite food or drinks, without those ingredients our favorite food wouldn’t taste as good. However, life without phosphorus, a crucial ingredient for life, wouldn’t be possible.
Jane Greaves, an astronomer at Cardiff University decided to look for phosphorus across the universe, and she arranged time on a telescope in the Canary Islands in order to study remnants of two supernova. The remnants are what is left after a star explosion occurs and after that, the material merges and new planets form.
According to the preliminary discoveries, which Greaves and her colleague presented at a conference that is being held this week in the U.K., the two remnants that they observed reveal different levels of phosphorus. Based on those observations, they determined that the crucial ingredient for life isn’t evenly distributed across the cosmos.
“I think people didn’t really think about [phosphorus]” in comparison to ingredients like carbon and water, Greaves told Newsweek. “It’s kind of a nice opportunity to go, ‘Look, this matters and it’s not super hard.””
Greaves studies and explores the clouds of dust and gas forming around young stars. The dust usually clumps together into a planet. During this project, she learned an observing technique that helps her analyze different colors of light that is produced by the remnants of supernova. Using this information, scientists will be able to learn what elements are present in the remnants.
“Now we’ve shown you can actually do this, we can try a few more supernova remnants,” Greaves said.
However, even if there is only a limited amount of phosphorus in the universe, that doesn’t mean that it reduces the chances to find extraterrestrial life, according to Avi Loeb, an astronomer at Harvard University in Massachusets, who wasn’t involved in the study.
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“It’s still possible that there would be pockets,” Loeb told Newsweek, concerning phosphorus and other elements that could serve as the crucial ingredient for life. Another element, molybdenum, living things also need, which pulls nitrogen out of the environment and is converted into usable formats.
According to Greaves, identifying phosphorus alone doesn’t suffice discovering life, at least not until this element is implemented into a mineral. “You don’t really have a good way to get it into biology,” Greaves said. She’s looking forward to collaborate with meteorite experts in order to be able to track different types of phosphorus compounds that space rocks could carry. Nevertheless, creating life on its own is not as easy as it sounds, just like baking cookies with the wrong materials. The study appears in the Royal Astronomical Society (link down at the time of writing.)