The origin of life on Earth is a set of paradoxes. In order for life to have gotten started, there must have been a genetic molecule—something like DNA or RNA—capable of passing along blueprints for making proteins, the workhorse molecules of life. But modern cells can’t copy DNA and RNA without the help of proteins themselves. To make matters more vexing, none of these molecules can do their jobs without fatty lipids, which provide the membranes that cells need to hold their contents inside. And in yet another chicken-and-egg complication, protein-based enzymes (encoded by genetic molecules) are needed to synthesize lipids.
Now, researchers say they may have solved these paradoxes. Chemists report today that a pair of simple compounds, which would have been abundant on early Earth, can give rise to a network of simple reactions that produce the three major classes of biomolecules—nucleic acids, amino acids, and lipids—needed for the earliest form of life to get its start. Although the new work does not prove that this is how life started, it may eventually help explain one of the deepest mysteries in modern science.
“This is a very important paper,” says Jack Szostak, a molecular biologist and origin-of-life researcher at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, who was not affiliated with the current research. “It proposes for the first time a scenario by which almost all of the essential building blocks for life could be assembled in one geological setting.”
Scientists have long touted their own favorite scenarios for which set of biomolecules formed first. “RNA World” proponents, for example suggest RNA may have been the pioneer; not only is it able to carry genetic information, but it can also serve as a proteinlike chemical catalyst, speeding up certain reactions. Metabolism-first proponents, meanwhile, have argued that simple metal catalysts, as opposed to advanced protein-based enzymes, may have created a soup of organic building blocks that could have given rise to the other biomolecules.
The RNA World hypothesis got a big boost in 2009. Chemists led by John Sutherland at the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom reported that they had discovered that relatively simple precursor compounds called acetylene and formaldehyde could undergo a sequence of reactions to produce two of RNA’s four nucleotide building blocks, showing a plausible route to how RNA could have formed on its own—without the need for enzymes—in the primordial soup. Critics, though, pointed out that acetylene and formaldehyde are still somewhat complex molecules themselves. That begged the question of where they came from.
For their current study, Sutherland and his colleagues set out to work backward from those chemicals to see if they could find a route to RNA from even simpler starting materials. They succeeded. In the current issue of Nature Chemistry, Sutherland’s team reports that it created nucleic acid precursors starting with just hydrogen cyanide (HCN), hydrogen sulfide (H2S), and ultraviolet (UV) light. What is more, Sutherland says, the conditions that produce nucleic acid precursors also create the starting materials needed to make natural amino acids and lipids. That suggests a single set of reactions could have given rise to most of life’s building blocks simultaneously.
Sutherland’s team argues that early Earth was a favorable setting for those reactions. HCN is abundant in comets, which rained down steadily for nearly the first several hundred million years of Earth’s history. The impacts would also have produced enough energy to synthesize HCN from hydrogen, carbon, and nitrogen. Likewise, Sutherland says, H2S was thought to have been common on early Earth, as was the UV radiation that could drive the reactions and metal-containing minerals that could have catalyzed them.
That said, Sutherland cautions that the reactions that would have made each of the sets of building blocks are different enough from one another—requiring different metal catalysts, for example—that they likely would not have all occurred in the same location. Rather, he says, slight variations in chemistry and energy could have favored the creation of one set of building blocks over another, such as amino acids or lipids, in different places. “Rainwater would then wash these compounds into a common pool,” says Dave Deamer, an origin-of-life researcher at the University of California, Santa Cruz, who wasn’t affiliated with the research.
Could life have kindled in that common pool? That detail is almost certainly forever lost to history. But the idea and the “plausible chemistry” behind it is worth careful thought, Deamer says. Szostak agrees. “This general scenario raises many questions,” he says, “and I am sure that it will be debated for some time to come.”