Evidence for amino acids in the gas of the IC 348 star cluster of the Perseus

Amino acids are building-blocks of proteins, basic constituents of all organisms and essential to life on Earth. They are present in carbonaceous chondrite meteorites and comets, but their origin is still unknown. Formation of amino acids in the interstellar medium is posible via specific gas-phase reactions in dark clouds, however sensitive radiosearches at millimeter wavelengths have not revealed their existence yet. The mid-IR vibrational spectra of amino acids provides an alternative path for their identification. We present Spitzer spectroscopic observations in the star-forming region IC 348 of the Perseus Molecular Cloud showing evidence for mid-IR bands of H2, OH, H2O, CO2, C2H2, C4H2, HC5N, C2H6, C6H2, C6H6, PAHs, fullerenes C60 and C70 and emission lines consistent with the most intense laboratory bands of the three aromatic amino acids, tyrosine, phenylalanine and tryptophan and the aliphatic amino acids isoleucine and glycine. Estimates of column densities give values 10-100 times higher for isoleucine and glycine than for the aromatic amino acids as in some meteorites. The strongest bands of each amino acid are also found in the combined spectrum of >30 interstellar locations in diverse star-forming regions supporting the suggestion that amino acids are widely spread in interstellar space. Future mid-IR searches for proteinogenic amino acids in protostars, protoplanetary disks and in the interstellar medium will be key to establish an exogenous origin of meteoritic amino acids and to understand how the prebiotic conditions for life were set in the early Earth.