Chemical Reaction That Started Life On Earth Recreated In Lab

By Charlene Badasie | Published

The origins of life on Earth have long been a subject of fascination, with scientists trying to figure out how self-replicating structures emerged from the chaotic mix of simple molecules billions of years ago.

One theory suggests that before DNA-based life, a molecule called RNA (ribonucleic acid) existed, capable of self-replication and catalyzing other chemical reactions.

Formation of RNA

Life On Earth

Quoc Phuong Tran, a Ph.D. Candidate in Prebiotic Chemistry at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia, is actively engaged in unraveling this mystery by recreating the complex chain of reactions required for the formation of RNA in the primordial environment, which essentially led to life of Earth.

One avenue of exploration involves autocatalytic reactions – processes capable of producing chemicals that promote the continuation of the same reaction, making them adaptable to diverse conditions.

An example of an autocatalytic reaction with potential relevance to the origins of life on Earth is the Formose reaction, discovered in 1861.

Larger Molecules

Life On Earth

According to Science Alert, the process starts with a compound called glycolaldehyde. When combined with a continuous supply of formaldehyde, larger molecules are created.

The key to its autocatalytic nature lies in the fragments produced during the reaction, which feedback to sustain the process. However, once the supply of formaldehyde diminishes, the reaction ceases, and the products degrade.

Molecules Are Looking Stable

Life On Earth

While the Formose reaction shares components with a recognized pathway for ribonucleotide formation known as the Powner-Sutherland pathway, its unselective nature poses a significant challenge.

This lack of specificity produces numerous unwanted molecules alongside the desired ribonucleotide life on Earth building blocks.

In a recent study, Tran and the team introduced another molecule, cyanamide, into the Formose reaction. This addition allows certain molecules generated during the reaction to be directed toward producing ribonucleotides.

Although the yield of ribonucleotide life on Earth building blocks is not substantial, the molecules produced exhibit increased stability, reducing the likelihood of degradation.

Origins Of Life On Earth

The study represents a departure from the traditional approach of independently examining the Formose reaction and ribonucleotide production.

The integration of these two processes sheds light on the dynamic interactions between different chemical pathways, resembling the intricate dance of molecules that likely occurred to create life on Earth early on.

Beyond its implications for understanding the origins of life on Earth, the integration of autocatalysis into the Formose reaction holds promise for industrial applications.

The addition of cyanamide yields not only ribonucleotides but also a compound called 2-amino oxazole, which is valuable in chemistry research and pharmaceutical production.

Billions Of Years Ago

Life On Earth

This development could potentially streamline the production of pharmaceuticals, reducing costs and making essential medications more accessible.

While the recreation of the chemical reactions that initiated life on Earth remains a complex and challenging endeavor, researchers are making significant strides in figuring it out.

Life on Earth is believed to have begun around 3.5 to 4.3 billion years ago. The Earth is approximately 4.5 billion years old, and scientists think that conditions may have been suitable to support life around 4.3 billion years ago.

The oldest known fossils are about 3.7 billion years old, indicating that life may have emerged during a 600 million-year window.

Earliest Life Forms

Microscopic organisms, or microbes, are the earliest life forms known to have existed on Earth, leaving signals of their presence in rocks about 3.7 billion years old.

These consist of a type of carbon molecule produced by living things, and evidence of microbes has also been preserved in the hard structures known as stromatolites, which date back to 3.5 billion years ago.