National Radio Astronomy Observatory
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June 15, 2000


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Scientists Discover Sugar in Space

A "ball and stick" representation of the chemical structure of glycolaldehyde. The atoms and connecting bond lengths are not to scale.

The geometries of three interstellar isomers. An isomer is one of two or more chemical substances having the same atomic composition and molecular weight but differing in geometry (structure), and, therefore, chemical properties. Glycolaldehyde, Methyl Formate, and Acetic Acid represent the first isomer triplet found in interstellar clouds. Methyl formate was discovered in 1975 and is the most abundant species of these isomers, Acetic Acid was discovered in 1997 and is the least abundant species, and Glycolaldehyde, the simplest sugar, was discovered in May 2000 at the NRAO 12 Meter telescope at Kitt Peak, Arizona.

Glycolaldehyde, the simplest sugar, compared to more complex sugar forms that occur naturally (i.e., the D-sugars). Glycolaldehyde is the only member of the sugar family yet detected in interstellar clouds. Note that the structure of glycolaldehyde is contained in both Ribose and Glucose. Ribose sugars make up the backbone of the ribonucleic acid (RNA) molecule which is involved in protein synthesis in living cells. Glucose, the most common sugar, occurs in plant saps and fruits.