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New insights into the origin of life

August 07, 2019

A famous experiment in 1953 showed that amino acids, the building blocks of proteins, could have formed spontaneously under the atmospheric conditions of early Earth. However, just because molecules could form doesn't mean that the process was likely. Now, researchers reporting in ACS Central Science have demonstrated that energetically feasible interactions between just two small molecules -- hydrogen cyanide and water -- could give rise to most of the important precursors of RNA and proteins.

The 1953 Urey-Miller experiment involved running electrical sparks, which simulated lightning, through a flask containing water, methane, ammonia and hydrogen. These simple chemicals, present on early Earth, reacted to form hydrogen cyanide, formaldehyde and other intermediates that reacted further to make amino acids and other biomolecules. But some scientists now believe that Earth's hazy atmosphere of roughly 4 billion years ago would have made it difficult for high-energy photons, such as those in lightning or ultraviolet light, to reach the earth's surface. Kumar Vanka and colleagues wondered if heat from ocean waters, which were near-boiling at the time, could have been the driving force for the reactions.

To find out, the researchers used a recently developed tool called the ab initio nanoreactor, which simulates how mixtures of molecules can collide and react, forming new molecules. The researchers found that hydrogen cyanide -- which condensed into oceans from the early Earth's atmosphere -- and water could create the molecules necessary to produce the amino acid glycine and the precursors of RNA. Importantly, these reactions were both thermodynamically and kinetically feasible: In other words, they didn't require a lot of energy or metal catalysts. The simulations reveal interesting new potential pathways for the formation of life's precursors, the team says.
-end-
The authors acknowledge funding from the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research and the Department of Science and Technology.

The paper's abstract will be available on August 7 at 8 a.m. Eastern time here: http://pubs.acs.org/doi/abs/10.1021/acscentsci.9b00520

For more research news, journalists and public information officers are encouraged to apply for complimentary press registration for the ACS fall 2019 national meeting in San Diego.

The American Chemical Society, the world's largest scientific society, is a not-for-profit organization chartered by the U.S. Congress. ACS is a global leader in providing access to chemistry-related information and research through its multiple databases, peer-reviewed journals and scientific conferences. ACS does not conduct research, but publishes and publicizes peer-reviewed scientific studies. Its main offices are in Washington, D.C., and Columbus, Ohio.

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