December 2005


Formaldehyde (H2CO) was one of the first astromolecules to be detected with radioastronomy, by Snyder et al. in 1969. The C(13) substituted variant was reported later in the same year. The detections of singly- and doubly-deuterated H2CO were reported in 1979 and 1990, respectively. Enrichment of deuterium and other rare isotopes is well-known for both interstellar species and carbonaceous chondrites, such as the Murchison meterorite. Formaldehyde was found in comets in the early 90s.

Formaldehyde is a cousin of a number of other observed astromolecules, including methyl formate (one H atom replaced with a methoxy group), acetone (both H atoms replaced with methyl groups), formamide (one H atom replaced with an amide group), formic acid (one H atom replaced with a hydroxyl group), the HCO formyl radical (one H atom removed), thioformaldehyde (the O atom is replaced with S), and methyleneimine (the O atom replaced with NH).

Formaldehyde is commonly known for its role as a preservative. It has a strong and distinctive odor and should be avoided for safety reasons. However, formaldehyde may have contributed to the origin of life on Earth as a precursor to sugars formed through the formose reaction or as a precursor to amino acids.

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