Formaldehyde has many industrial uses–in particle board, plywood, carpet, and adhesives, to name just a few. Formaldehyde is toxic to life–the reason that it’s used as a disinfectant–and the reason that many countries have banned the use of formaldehyde in furniture and housing materials.
But formaldehyde may well have formed the basis for life in our solar system.
New research, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on April 4, 2011, shows that complex organic solids were likely made from formaldehyde in the primitive solar system.
George Cody, Conel Alexander, and Larry Nittler did experiments to try to make the type of organic matter found in meteorites. When they started their reactions with formaldehyde, they found that the organic material that was created was similar to the organic material in the meteorites and also similar to the organic material found in a comet that NASA had sampled.
“We may owe our existence on this planet to interstellar formaldehyde,” Cody said. “And what’s ironic about it is that formaldehyde is poisonous to life on Earth.”
Formaldehyde is relatively abundant throughout the galaxy, making it possible that life could form in other solar systems in the same way that it formed in this solar system.