Space-age building blocks

Chemical reactions often involve two uncharged molecules. However, scientists have long known that mixing charged molecules, or ions, with uncharged molecules can yield some of the fastest reactions known to chemistry. These reactions and how they take place in the universe is leading York chemistry Professor Diethard Bohme on a quest that looks to the heart of the very existence of life. 

“An understanding of these reactions,” says Bohme, “may greatly contribute to an understanding of how life developed in our universe.”

Right: Diethard Bohme

With the help of radio astronomers and mass spectrometry, Bohme, Canada Research Chair in Chemical Mass Spectrometry, is identifying and studying these extraordinarily fast reactions as they occur in the great interstellar clouds between the stars.

Building on the work of radio astronomers – who have identified more than 100 different kinds of interstellar molecules – Bohme and graduate student Voislav Blagojevic have elucidated the chemical reactions that produce simple amino acids in these interstellar clouds.

“And amino acids,” said Bohme, “are the building blocks of life.”

Left: An interstellar cloud similar to the ones being investigated by Bohme and Blagojevic

Just published in The Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomic Society, Bohme and Blagojevic’s groundbreaking findings are now being examined by NASA.

Space chemistry is only just one area of interest for Bohme. Funded by NSERC, NRC and the company MDS Sciex, Bohme is also studying the chemistry and biochemistry of metal ions. As a result of this work, Bohme has demonstrated the use of metal ions in analytical mass spectrometry as well as in the catalytic reduction of nitrous oxide by carbon monoxide. An ongoing project of his mimics the way metal ions attach to biological molecules, and then measures biochemical activity in the gas phase. Plus, in collaboration with NRC Halifax, Bohme’s research group is also developing new mass-spectrometric approaches that will lead to better analytic methods for identifying water toxins.

Bohme’s work is interdisciplinary, drawing on astronomy, physics, chemistry and biology.

The above article was submitted to YFile by Jason Guriel, York’s Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada SPARK student (Students Promoting Awareness of Research Knowledge). Guriel, a second-year graduate student in English, is writing stories on York NSERC-funded researchers throughout the academic year.

SPARK is a program that was launched in 1999 at 10 universities across Canada. Through the program, students with an aptitude for communications are recruited, trained and paid to write stories based on the NSERC-supported research at participating universities. Information on the NSERC and the Spark Student program is available by logging on to York’s NSERC Research site here