The comet-like composition of a protoplanetary disk as revealed by complex cyanides

Karin I. Öberg, Viviana V. Guzmán, Kenji Furuya, Chunhua Qi, Yuri Aikawa, Sean M. Andrews, Ryan Loomis & David J. Wilner

Nature 520, 198–201 (09 April 2015) | doi:10.1038/nature14276


Observations of comets and asteroids show that the solar nebula that spawned our planetary system was rich in water and organic molecules. Bombardment brought these organics to the young Earth’s surface1. Unlike asteroids, comets preserve a nearly pristine record of the solar nebula composition. The presence of cyanides in comets, including 0.01 per cent of methyl cyanide (CH3CN) with respect to water, is of special interest because of the importance of C–N bonds for abiotic amino acid synthesis2. Comet-like compositions of simple and complex volatiles are found in protostars, and can readily be explained by a combination of gas-phase chemistry (to form, for example, HCN) and an active ice-phase chemistry on grain surfaces that advances complexity3. Simple volatiles, including water and HCN, have been detected previously in solar nebula analogues, indicating that they survive disk formation or are re-formed in situ4, 5, 6, 7. It has hitherto been unclear whether the same holds for more complex organic molecules outside the solar nebula, given that recent observations show a marked change in the chemistry at the boundary between nascent envelopes and young disks due to accretion shocks8. Here we report the detection of the complex cyanides CH3CN and HC3N (and HCN) in the protoplanetary disk around the young star MWC 480. We find that the abundance ratios of these nitrogen-bearing organics in the gas phase are similar to those in comets, which suggests an even higher relative abundance of complex cyanides in the disk ice. This implies that complex organics accompany simpler volatiles in protoplanetary disks, and that the rich organic chemistry of our solar nebula was not unique.