An English chemist has found the hidden gateway to the RNA world, the chemical milieu from which the first forms of life are thought to have emerged on earth some 3.8 billion years ago.
He has solved a problem that for 20 years has thwarted researchers trying to understand the origin of life — how the building blocks of RNA, called nucleotides, could have spontaneously assembled themselves in the conditions of the primitive earth. The discovery, if correct, should set researchers on the right track to solving many other mysteries about the origin of life. It will also mean that for the first time a plausible explanation exists for how an information-carrying biological molecule could have emerged through natural processes from chemicals on the primitive earth.
The author, John D. Sutherland, a chemist at the University of Manchester, likened his work to a crossword puzzle in which doing the first clues makes the others easier. "Whether we've done one across is an open question," he said. "Our worry is that it may not be right."
Other researchers say they believe he has made a major advance in prebiotic chemistry, the study of the natural chemical reactions that preceded the first living cells.
The spontaneous appearance of such nucleotides on the primitive earth "would have been a near miracle," two leading researchers, Gerald Joyce and Leslie Orgel, wrote in 1999. Others were so despairing that they believed some other molecule must have preceded RNA and started looking for a pre-RNA world.
The miracle seems now to have been explained. In the article in Nature, Dr. Sutherland and his colleagues Matthew W. Powner and Béatrice Gerland report that they have taken the same starting chemicals used by others but have caused them to react in a different order and in different combinations than in previous experiments. they discovered their recipe, which is far from intuitive, after 10 years of working through every possible combination of starting chemicals.
"My assumption is that we are here on this planet as a fundamental consequence of organic chemistry," Dr. Sutherland said. "So it must be chemistry that wants to work."
Thursday, May 14, 2009
Origin of Life Discovery?
Excerpts of Chemist Shows How RNA Can Be the Starting Point for Life by Nicholas Wade of the New York Times. This will have huge implications if this pans out.