Astronomers spy a strand of genetic code in the cosmos.

helixnebula.jpg The double helix nebula appears on the left side of the reddish inset image; the larger-field greenish image is a shorter-wavelength infrared image made recently with the IRAC camera on the Spitzer Space Telescope by Susan Stolovy and her colleagues.  Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA

Scientists expect to see a double helix while examining DNA, either via diagram or under an atomic force microscope. So, it’s a little surprising to find that geometric shape at the end of a telescope, as a team of astronomers did recently. Apparently, near the center of our galaxy, is a nebula sharing the shape of our genetic material, the first one of its kind anybody has seen.

“[The nebula] made a lot of sense once we looked at it and started thinking about it, because it’s oriented exactly along the galaxy’s magnetic field as we would have expected, and yet nobody had predicted it,” said Mark Morris, a UCLA astronomer and primary author of the paper that appeared in Nature on March 16th, announcing the finding.

Morris and his team used the spectrometer aboard NASA‘s Spitzer Space Telescope to analyze the nebula, which drifted across the screen while they were studying the galaxy’s center. The cosmic double helix is probably made up of clouds of ionized dust hovering around a pair of magnetic field lines, Morris said, and a wave traveling up the field lines from the center of the galaxy created the twisting double helix shape.

“The wave can carry charged dust particles with it, and it’s those dust particles, very tiny dust particles, smaller than chalk dust, that inhabit our galaxy and can be carried aloft by such a wave,” he said.

Morris compared the shape of the nebula to a rope held taut by two people, one of who rotates his end to create a twist that travels all the way down the line.

Like a rope attached at one end, magnetic field lines have tension, Morris said. “If there’s something at the base of the magnetic lines twisting them, that twist wave will travel up the magnetic field and out of the galaxy.”

Morris hypothesizes that the wave traveling up the magnetic field lines and creating the double helix nebula is a disk of gas at its base, made to spin by the gravity of the black hole at the center of our galaxy. The double strands of the nebula are created by the dumbbell-like structure of the spinning disk, which concentrates the magnetic field lines in two areas, he said—otherwise, the nebula would be cylindrical.

Gregory Benford, an astronomer at University of California, Irvine, agreed with Morris’ disk theory for describing the nebula’s shape.

“Two attracting filaments would naturally move helically, from their magnetic attraction.”

Still, Morris cautions that his theory remains unproven, and one of the next steps for his team will be to run corroborating tests. He also plans to further analyze the content of the dust that constitutes the nebula’s strands.

Originally published March 26, 2006


Share this Stumbleupon Reddit Email + More


  • Ideas

    I Tried Almost Everything Else

    John Rinn, snowboarder, skateboarder, and “genomic origamist,” on why we should dumpster-dive in our genomes and the inspiration of a middle-distance runner.

  • Ideas

    Going, Going, Gone

    The second most common element in the universe is increasingly rare on Earth—except, for now, in America.

  • Ideas

    Earth-like Planets Aren’t Rare

    Renowned planetary scientist James Kasting on the odds of finding another Earth-like planet and the power of science fiction.

The Seed Salon

Video: conversations with leading scientists and thinkers on fundamental issues and ideas at the edge of science and culture.

Are We Beyond the Two Cultures?

Video: Seed revisits the questions C.P. Snow raised about science and the humanities 50 years by asking six great thinkers, Where are we now?

Saved by Science

Audio slideshow: Justine Cooper's large-format photographs of the collections behind the walls of the American Museum of Natural History.

The Universe in 2009

In 2009, we are celebrating curiosity and creativity with a dynamic look at the very best ideas that give us reason for optimism.

Revolutionary Minds
The Interpreters

In this installment of Revolutionary Minds, five people who use the new tools of science to educate, illuminate, and engage.

The Seed Design Series

Leading scientists, designers, and architects on ideas like the personal genome, brain visualization, generative architecture, and collective design.

The Seed State of Science

Seed examines the radical changes within science itself by assessing the evolving role of scientists and the shifting dimensions of scientific practice.

A Place for Science

On the trail of the haunts, homes, and posts of knowledge, from the laboratory to the field.


Witness the science. Stunning photographic portfolios from the pages of Seed magazine.

SEEDMAGAZINE.COM by Seed Media Group. ©2005-2015 Seed Media Group LLC. All Rights Reserved.

Sites by Seed Media Group: Seed Media Group | ScienceBlogs | Research Blogging | SEEDMAGAZINE.COM