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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

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  • (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.

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  • (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.