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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: 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.

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  • (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.

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    • (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.