Charred Building Blocks

StarDate: January 22, 2009

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If there's one thing we're proud of here in Texas, it's good brisket -- smoked for hours to infuse a rich flavor and give it a thin black crust. It turns out that like most things that taste good, though, that crust may not be too good for you. It contains an organic compound known as P-A-H -- polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons.

PAHs are also found in car exhaust, cigarette smoke, and a lot of other unhealthy things. But they're also found in space, where they just may be a key building block for life.

PAHs are made of hydrogen and carbon, and carbon is one of the essential elements in life on Earth. On the early Earth, PAHs may have been the "building blocks" that formed more-complex organic molecules, which are the chemistry of life.

There's little doubt that PAHs are common in newborn star systems. Astronomers have found them in several nebulae that are giving birth to new stars, and in the disks of material that encircle young stars -- disks that may be giving birth to planets. And they've discovered them in comets in our own solar system -- balls of rock and ice that are left over from the birth of the planets; more about the chemistry of comets tomorrow.

So the next time you chow down on some Texas brisket -- or even a hamburger grilled in your own back yard -- keep in mind that the charred crust probably isn't too good for you -- but without its basic ingredients, we might not even be here.

Script by Damond Benningfield, Copyright 2008

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