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Astronomers find large organic molecules in neighboring dwarf galaxy

Astronomers studying a nearby dwarf galaxy have detected large organic molecules, suggesting that the basic chemical building blocks of life can form in places much more primitive than our own galaxy. Complex organic molecules, consisting of carbon bonded with other elements like oxygen and hydrogen, are common in the Milky Way, but it was uncertain whether they would be produced in certain dwarf galaxies like the neighboring Large Magellanic Cloud. This galaxy forms stars very slowly, so its chemical composition is primitive compared with that of the Milky Way, and elements like carbon and oxygen are relatively scarce. Astronomers used a radio telescope called the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) to look for organic molecules in the Large Magellanic Cloud, located about 160,000 light-years from Earth. In two star-forming regions of the galaxy, ALMA picked up signals emanating from three complex organic molecules, including dimethyl ether and methyl formate, which had not previously been detected outside our own galaxy. The chemical composition of the Large Magellanic Cloud is similar to that of the early universe, so analyzing our galactic neighbor helps astronomers paint a clearer picture of how the chemistry of the universe evolved, the researchers write in a paper published this week in Astrophysical Journal Letters. Their recent finding suggests that the chemical basis for life may have formed when the universe was still quite young.