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Parkes Telescope Detects Key Feature of Life Outside Solar System

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Research with CSIRO's Parkes telescope has discovered the first molecule in space that has a key attribute associated with life - 'handedness' or chirality.

The breakthrough is expected to help scientists solve one of the greatest mysteries in biology – the origin of homochirality - and offer insights into what we can expect from life throughout the universe.

The finding is being announced at a meeting of the American Astronomical Society today and will appear in the journal Science.

Like your two hands, many molecules can exist in forms that are mirror images of each other.

But molecules associated with life, such as amino acids, proteins, enzymes and sugars, are found in nature in only one form.

For example, the amino acids that make up proteins only exist in the left-handed form, while the sugars found in DNA are exclusively right-handed. This phenomenon is known as homochirality.

"Understanding how this came about is a major puzzle in biology," Director of Operations at CSIRO Astronomy and Space Science, Dr John Reynolds said.

Chiral molecules are essential to biology on Earth, but until now they hadn't been known to exist outside our own solar system.

Now for the first time a 'handed' molecule, propylene oxide, has been detected in space with the Parkes telescope and the Green Bank Telescope in the USA.

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The full text of this article can be purchased from Informit.