We conduct research in the emerging field of prebiotic astrochemistry where we investigate the chemical mechanisms in space that lead to the development of biological systems. It is now thought that meteorite and comet impacts delivered water and biological material to the early Earth, seeding the formation of life [1,2]. Fundamental biological molecules such as amino acids [3] and sugars [4] have been discovered in meteorites, but none of these species have yet been detected in the interstellar medium (ISM).

It is not clear, then, where or how these molecules originally formed. Nonetheless, more than 200 molecules have been detected in the ISM (see the Cologne Database for Molecular Spectroscopy for the most up-to-date list), and most of these species are complex organics. Determination of the level of chemical complexity reached in the ISM, the dominant chemical process at play in these environments, and whether biological molecules can form under these conditions is critical for understanding of the origin of life.

Our research draws from the forefronts of laboratory spectroscopy, observational astronomy, and chemical modeling.

In the laboratory, we are developing new high-sensitivity spectral techniques for the terahertz (THz) frequency range. We are combining these techniques with novel production mechanisms to study transient molecules that are key to prebiotic chemical pathways in interstellar chemistry. We then use the spectroscopic results as a guide to search for these molecules in space. From these observations, we can determine the abundance, temperature, and spatial distribution of these species in interstellar clouds. We then use this information to model interstellar chemistry and test the influence of varying physical conditions to gain a better chemical understanding of the ISM. It is only through this type of fully integrated research combining spectroscopy, observations, and modeling that we will fully understand the mechanisms driving interstellar chemistry and the pathways for the formation of life.

[1] Oro (1961) Nature 190, 389.
[2] Raymond, Quinn, & Luine (2004) Icarus 168, 1.
[3] Kvenvolden et al. (1970) Nature 228, 923.
[4] Cooper et al. (2001) Nature 414, 879.