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posted by hubie on Friday August 05, @12:54AM   Printer-friendly
from the surprising-reactions dept.

Scientists discover new 'origins of life' chemical reactions:

Four billion years ago, the Earth looked very different than it does today, devoid of life and covered by a vast ocean. Over the course of millions of years, in that primordial soup, life emerged. Researchers have long theorized how molecules came together to spark this transition. Now, scientists at Scripps Research have discovered a new set of chemical reactions that use cyanide, ammonia and carbon dioxide—all thought to be common on the early earth—to generate amino acids and nucleic acids, the building blocks of proteins and DNA.

"We've come up with a new paradigm to explain this shift from prebiotic to biotic chemistry," says Ramanarayanan Krishnamurthy, Ph.D., an associate professor of chemistry at Scripps Research, and lead author of the new paper, published July 28, 2022 in the journal Nature Chemistry. "We think the kind of reactions we've described are probably what could have happened on early earth."

In addition to giving researchers insight into the chemistry of the early earth, the newly discovered chemical reactions are also useful in certain manufacturing processes, such as the generation of custom labeled biomolecules from inexpensive starting materials.

Earlier this year, Krishnamurthy's group showed how cyanide can enable the chemical reactions that turn prebiotic molecules and water into basic organic compounds required for life. Unlike previously proposed reactions, this one worked at room temperature and in a wide pH range. The researchers wondered whether, under the same conditions, there was a way to generate amino acids, more complex molecules that compose proteins in all known living cells.

[...] "We were expecting it to be quite difficult to figure this out, and it turned out to be even simpler than we had imagined," says Krishnamurthy. "If you mix only the keto acid, cyanide and ammonia, it just sits there. As soon as you add carbon dioxide, even trace amounts, the reaction picks up speed."

Because the new reaction is relatively similar to what occurs today inside cells—except for being driven by cyanide instead of a protein—it seems more likely to be the source of early life, rather than drastically different reactions, the researchers say. The research also helps bring together two sides of a long-standing debate about the importance of carbon dioxide to early life, concluding that carbon dioxide was key, but only in combination with other molecules.

Journal Reference:
Pulletikurti, Sunil, Yadav, Mahipal, Springsteen, Greg, et al. Prebiotic synthesis of α-amino acids and orotate from α-ketoacids potentiates transition to extant metabolic pathways, Nature Chemistry, 2022. DOI: 10.1038/s41557-022-00999-w

Original Submission

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  • (Score: 3, Insightful) by khallow on Friday August 05, @02:25AM (16 children)

    by khallow (3766) Subscriber Badge on Friday August 05, @02:25AM (#1265012) Journal
    This strikes me as illustrating that it's pretty easy to create amino acids and such. If we were somehow to go back into that past, perhaps we would find multiple processes creating these building blocks. The relative distribution of present day amino acids may also indicate what processes were prevalent.
    • (Score: 3, Informative) by sgleysti on Friday August 05, @04:16AM (4 children)

      by sgleysti (56) on Friday August 05, @04:16AM (#1265036)

      I don't have a whole lot to say, other than: (1) this is a really neat article / discovery, and (2) thanks for your insightful comment.

      • (Score: 2) by janrinok on Friday August 05, @06:40AM (3 children)

        by janrinok (52) Subscriber Badge on Friday August 05, @06:40AM (#1265051) Journal

        Thank you for your comment. Some people only judge the value of a story by the number of comments that it generates. We prefer to balance it with page hits and other statistics. But genuine comments explaining why some people find it of interest is perhaps the most valuable of all.

        • (Score: 2, Informative) by anubi on Friday August 05, @08:09AM (1 child)

          by anubi (2828) on Friday August 05, @08:09AM (#1265062) Journal

          Looked to me like another take on the Miller-Urey experiment.


          "Prove all things; hold fast that which is good." [KJV: I Thessalonians 5:21]
          • (Score: 1) by khallow on Friday August 05, @12:16PM

            by khallow (3766) Subscriber Badge on Friday August 05, @12:16PM (#1265085) Journal
            Indeed. When I first heard of that experiment, it sounded pretty exotic. You could make amino acids and such, but it took lightning or something similar of high energy (maybe cosmic rays). I haven't done a survey, but there's since been a number of experiments that have found natural-like processes that generate these necessary chemicals from the atmosphere down to the deepest ocean.

            Putting on my prognosticator hat, I think the big move will be figuring out what the early Earth environment would be like for amino acids and nucleic acids. That is, how persistent are these chemicals in the environment - what survives and what doesn't? You wouldn't have free oxygen for a billion years so it may be possible that amino acids and such slowly accumulated in the environment until some combination created the first self-replicating life forms which might originally feed off of accumulated amino acids rather than environmental disequilibrium like methane or sunlight.
        • (Score: 2) by sgleysti on Monday August 08, @01:41AM

          by sgleysti (56) on Monday August 08, @01:41AM (#1265487)

          I was halfway worried about seeing a comment by a young earther or something and was very pleasantly surprised, lol. I hope scientists figure out a few things within my lifetime, foremost of which: what the heck is dark matter made of? A plausible mechanism for the origin of life on earth would be neat too.

    • (Score: 3, Interesting) by Opportunist on Friday August 05, @09:45AM (10 children)

      by Opportunist (5545) on Friday August 05, @09:45AM (#1265070)

      The biggest problem we face today is that life could never ever come into existence again on this Earth. Not with the current conditions. Early life was pretty much dependent on a low/no oxygen atmosphere. Actually, the biggest extinction event in the history of our planet was not the dying of the dinos some million years ago, it was when oxygen hit the atmosphere [] in amounts that could not be sequestered anymore by oxydizing other material.

      Hmm. Come to think of it, considering that oxidation is an exothermal process, did that heat up the planet? Has that ever been examined?

      Anyway. We can at best create those conditions in a lab, but we certainly won't see life come into existence again. And not only because existing life, having some billions of years of a headstart, would immediately eat or displace it.

      • (Score: 2) by janrinok on Friday August 05, @11:12AM (2 children)

        by janrinok (52) Subscriber Badge on Friday August 05, @11:12AM (#1265074) Journal

        You are assuming, I believe, whatever ills the world faces that might result in man become extinct will have the same effect on every other form of life.

        That might simply not be the case. It is unlikely that a new version of man will evolve but something else will almost certainly evolve from whatever life forms are left after we are long gone. After all, look at the diversity that we have today and, despite man's best efforts to wipe a great deal of it out, there is still a huge number of different forms with which we share this planet.

        We may well be on the way to making this planet uninhabitable for ourselves, but evolution probably views us as a minor blip over the passage of time.

        • (Score: 3, Insightful) by Opportunist on Friday August 05, @11:48AM (1 child)

          by Opportunist (5545) on Friday August 05, @11:48AM (#1265081)

          Nah, as the great philosopher and wise man George Carlin said, don't worry about the planet. The planet is fine, we're fucked.

          There's hope that whatever evolves after us to sentience may be a bit more considerate with the resouces offered. But then again, it sure is going to be harder for them. We had the resources a planet would create through millions if not billions of years at our disposal. At this point, I'm not even sure we could repeat our own development, considering that all the low hanging fruits and easily accessible resources, the ones that we could reach with more primitive forms of digging through mountains and drilling into the earth, are gone because, well, if it's easy to get, it's the first thing that's gone. That's why you find fairly little gold and other precious material just lying around anymore. That was the first stuff that went.

          We sure ain't gonna make it easy for whoever comes after we managed to screw ourselves beyond repair. Which may well be a good thing, considering how we certainly could not have become the problem for the rest of the planet without easy access to resources that allowed us to create the tools we have today.

          • (Score: 1) by khallow on Friday August 05, @12:32PM

            by khallow (3766) Subscriber Badge on Friday August 05, @12:32PM (#1265087) Journal

            There's hope that whatever evolves after us to sentience may be a bit more considerate with the resouces offered.

            Keep in mind that we presently offer a lot of resources in the form of our cities and landfills. We're already really considerate.

      • (Score: 1) by khallow on Friday August 05, @12:05PM (6 children)

        by khallow (3766) Subscriber Badge on Friday August 05, @12:05PM (#1265083) Journal

        The biggest problem we face today is that life could never ever come into existence again on this Earth.

        Not seeing that as a problem myself for several reasons. First, any new life of this sort probably wouldn't even start as cellular. It wouldn't add that much to existing life diversity for hundreds of millions to billions of years. Earth might have half a billion years left, unless we start moving it around.

        There's also a huge incompatibility to existing life that would have to be sorted out. You mentioned one side where existing life promptly eats it. But what if it goes the other way and the new life promptly eats the old? That could result, for example, in the extinction of most or all multicellular life if a really successful competitor broke out and started eating/infecting cells.

        Third, we have many alternative means for creating life on Earth, should that turn out to be a good idea, via human innovation.

        • (Score: 2) by Opportunist on Friday August 05, @12:40PM (5 children)

          by Opportunist (5545) on Friday August 05, @12:40PM (#1265089)

          What we can observe is that life gets more complex as time moves on. Moreover, life gets more competitive as time moves on. Early organisms were comparably simple and less sophisticated. And there wasn't much need to be. Little competition and no predators mean that there is no evolutionary pressure.

          As soon as competition, predators, parasites and other elements enter the equation, you can observe how organisms start to become "better". Plants developed ways to detect and move/grow towards light, animals developed ways to detect when they are visible and developed to move towards hiding places to escape predation. Predators became more adapt at hunting.

          Looking back through our evolutionary history, you'll find that many early predators wouldn't be able to compete with what would be their contemporary prey. It would be too fast and/or agile and the predators would not be able to hunt successfully. They would perish. Early predators were incredibly slow, their only "luck" was that their prey was either stationary and thus unable to flee or also not too fast. Both, predators and prey, developed together to become faster and more adapt at hunting and escaping.

          So no, I'd not be too worried that any "new life" could become a problem for our ecosystem. You would be looking at very simple organisms.

          • (Score: 2) by HiThere on Friday August 05, @01:36PM (1 child)

            by HiThere (866) on Friday August 05, @01:36PM (#1265100) Journal

            I disagree with the "more competitive" assertion, though it was probably true at the very beginning. Perhaps "more efficiently competitive" would be true, but what's "efficiently competitive" depends strongly on the environment within which it exists. Herbivores don't compete efficiently for steaks. Carnivores don't compete efficiently for lettuce. Omnivores are generally second best with every food selection, but can switch diets when one source becomes scarce. Larger animals don't generally compete efficiently for small animals, though whales and flamingos are exceptions.

            Javascript is what you use to allow unknown third parties to run software you have no idea about on your computer.
            • (Score: 2) by Lester on Sunday August 07, @06:04AM

              by Lester (6231) on Sunday August 07, @06:04AM (#1265393) Journal

              They are very efficient and competitive in their niche. Small preys, big preys, grass, feathers from high trees.

              A new form of life wouldn't live in the void, but in the current environment where all the niches are occupied by very well adapted species. A new very simple form of life wouldn't have a chance.

              Obviously if there is an environment change that destroys a niche, al the species that live in that niche die, and a few individuals will adapt to a new niche.

          • (Score: 1) by khallow on Friday August 05, @10:38PM (2 children)

            by khallow (3766) Subscriber Badge on Friday August 05, @10:38PM (#1265187) Journal

            Moreover, life gets more competitive as time moves on.

            I have to disagree with the more competitive claim as well. Repeatedly, I've read of organisms that are surprisingly inefficient despite their supposedly highly competitive environment - for example, leaf cutter ants that are wasteful enough that they act as massive fertilizers of the soil. Or the many mammals, including humans, that only use a fraction of the calories they consume (the rest going out with urine and feces).

            It turns out that being less competitive via less efficient use of resources can be more survivable in the presence of parasites, disease, and natural disaster.

            • (Score: 2) by Lester on Sunday August 07, @06:13AM (1 child)

              by Lester (6231) on Sunday August 07, @06:13AM (#1265394) Journal

              Nobody said that competitiviness is related to using resources efficiently.
              it is related to survival. Sometimes means no waste other times fast consuming even when you waste 90%

              • (Score: 1) by khallow on Sunday August 07, @04:02PM

                by khallow (3766) Subscriber Badge on Sunday August 07, @04:02PM (#1265433) Journal
                Thinking more about my leafcutter ant example, it's actually a complex interaction between at least four different niches: the ants themselves, the funguses they rely on - no niche in the first place without that edible fungus, the trees that provide the leaves, and the various predators and parasites that prey on the ants and other parties. Viewing it merely in terms of resource consumption both ignores the dynamics between these groups - with some sort of cooperation between several going on, and that even competition doesn't describe well the situation except when discussing interaction between groups in the same niche.