Scientists Just Recreated The Chemical Reaction That May Have Led to Life on Earth

When did life start? How did sophisticated, self-replicating structures emerge from chemical interactions on the early Earth to become living organisms as we know them?

One school of thought holds that there existed a type of molecule known as RNA (or ribonucleic acid) prior to the current era of life based on DNA. RNA has the ability to duplicate itself and catalyze other chemical events, making it an essential component of life as we know it today.

However, the building blocks of RNA molecules are smaller units known as ribonucleotides. How would these components have come together to produce RNA after forming on the primordial Earth?

It's a difficult effort for chemists like myself to reproduce the series of processes needed to make RNA at the beginning of life. We know that the complex and chaotic environment on our planet billions of years ago must have allowed for the chemical process that produced ribonucleotides.

I've been researching the possibility that "autocatalytic" processes were involved. These reactions can persist under a variety of conditions because the chemicals they create promote the occurrence of the same reaction again.

My coworkers and I have just incorporated autocatalysis into a well-known chemical pathway to produce the building blocks of ribonucleotides, a process that may have reasonably occurred given the simple molecules and complicated environment present on the early Earth.

The response of Formose

In biology, autocatalytic processes are essential for anything from controlling heart rate to creating patterns on seashells. The process of life itself, in which a single cell uses its surroundings to generate two more by absorbing nutrients and energy, is really a very intricate instance of autocatalysis.

One of the better instances of an autocatalytic process that might have occurred on the early Earth is the formose reaction, which was originally identified in 1861.

Glycolaldehyde is a simple chemical consisting of hydrogen, carbon, and oxygen. The formose reaction essentially begins with one molecule of this substance and finishes with two. The formaldehyde molecule, another simple chemical, is essential to the mechanism's operation.

Glycolaldehyde and formaldehyde mix to generate a larger molecule, which then breaks up into smaller pieces that feed back into the reaction to continue it. But as soon as the formaldehyde runs out, the synthesis halts and the complicated sugar molecules begin to break down into tar.

The Powner–Sutherland route, a well-known chemical mechanism for producing ribonucleotides, and the formose reaction have several similar constituents. To be fair, nobody has attempted to make the connection between the two up until now.

The "unselective" nature of the formose reaction is well-known. This implies that in addition to the desired products, it also generates a large number of worthless molecules.

An autocatalytic detour on the ribonucleotide route

In our investigation, we experimented with cyanamide—an additional basic molecule—adding to the formose process. This allows some molecules formed in the process to be "siphoned off" and converted into ribonucleotides.

Even yet, the process does not yield a significant amount of ribonucleotide building blocks. The ones it does generate, though, are less prone to break down and more stable.

Our study's combination of the ribonucleotide synthesis with the formose reaction is intriguing. Prior research has examined each independently, which is consistent with the way chemists typically approach the synthesis of compounds.

Chemists typically steer clear of complexity in order to maximize a product's quantity and purity. This reductionist methodology, however, may keep us from looking into the dynamic connections between various chemical pathways.

These interactions are undoubtedly the link that connects biology and chemistry since they occur everywhere in the real world outside of the lab.

applications in industry

The industrial sector can also benefit from autocatalysis. Another byproduct of the formose reaction that is produced when cyanamide is added is a substance known as 2-aminooxazole, which is utilized in both medicinal and scientific research.

Glycolaldehyde, a costly substance, and cyanamide are often used in the conventional synthesis of 2-aminooxazoles. Should the formose reaction be employed, a minimal quantity of glycolaldehyde will be required to initiate the reaction, hence reducing expenses.

In an effort to control the autocatalytic reaction and increase the affordability and efficiency of common chemical processes as well as the accessibility of medicinal goods, our lab is now refining this process. We believe it may still be meaningful even if it might not be as significant as the genesis of life itself.

Quoc Phuong Tran, PhD Candidate in Prebiotic Chemistry, UNSW Sydney

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.