The prospects for life in the universe have just got sweeter with the first discovery of a simple sugar molecule in space. Glycolaldehyde can combine with other molecules to form the more complex sugars ribose and glucose. Ribose is a building block of nucleic acids such as RNA and DNA.

The molecule was found in a giant cloud of gas and dust near the centre of the Milky Way where new stars are forming. Radio waves are emitted when molecules change from one rotational energy state to another. The precise frequencies emitted by a particular molecule form a unique "fingerprint".

The discovery was made using the US National Science Foundation's radio telescope on Kitt Peak, Arizona. In August, the foundation inaugurated a new 100 m radio telescope at its Green Bank site in West Virginia.