Using the ALMA Observatory in Chile, they found the unusual carbon-based molecule, one with a branched structure contained within a giant gas cloud in interstellar space.

Like finding a molecular needle in a cosmic haystack, astronomers detected radio waves emitted by the molecule called isopropyl cyanide.

"This detection opens a new frontier in the complexity of molecules that can be formed in interstellar space and that might ultimately find their way to the surfaces of planets," explained Rob Garrod, senior research associate at the Cornell University's centre for radiophysics and space research.

The branched carbon structure of isopropyl cyanide is a common feature in molecules that are needed for life such as amino acids, which are the building blocks of proteins.

"This new discovery lends weight to the idea that biologically crucial molecules, like amino acids that are commonly found in meteorites are produced early in the process of star formation, even before planets such as Earth are formed," Garrod said.

Organic molecules usually found in these star-forming regions consist of a single backbone of carbon atoms arranged in a straight chain.

"But the carbon structure of isopropyl cyanide branches off, making it the first interstellar detection of such a molecule," Garrod noted.

The team examined the chemical make-up of Sagittarius B2 - a region close to our galaxy' centre and an area rich in complex interstellar organic molecules.

"Understanding the production of organic material at the early stages of star formation is critical to piecing together the gradual progression from simple molecules to potentially life-bearing chemistry," concluded Arnaud Belloche from the Max Planck Institute for radio astronomy in Germany.

The discovery was reported in the journal Science.

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