How Polymers May Have Given Rise To Life

A study by scientists in Japan reveals the simple chemical process that may have led to life on Earth.

AsianScientist (Jun. 29, 2018) – A team of scientists in Japan has discovered that conditions on early Earth favored the production of molecular precursors of life known as alpha-hydroxy acid polymers. Their research has been published in Communications Chemistry.

There are different theories for how life first formed on the early Earth. One popular theory suggests that life may have arisen in specialized environments, such as tidal pools or shallow water hot springs, where simple chemical reactions would have helped generate life’s precursors.

All life is made up of polymers, large molecules made up of a sequence of molecules called monomers. A key question is how biological polymers could have formed without enzymes on early Earth.

In the present study, researchers led by Dr. Kuhan Chandru and Associate Professor Jim Cleaves from the Earth-Life Science Institute at Tokyo Institute of Technology, Japan, showed that alpha-hydroxy acids, similar to the alpha-amino acids that make up modern proteins, form large polymers easily under conditions presumed to be prevalent on early Earth.

To simulate primitive environments, the team combined alpha-hydroxy acids under various pH and temperature conditions. They then used high-resolution mass spectrometry and data analysis software to verify whether polymerization had occurred.

The team showed that a mixture of different types of alpha-hydroxy acid could form hundreds of trillions of distinct polymer sequences, in effect creating vast ‘libraries’ of different chemical structures that can remain stable over a range of environmental conditions.

This research reveals new possibilities for the chemistry that may have led to the formation of life. The authors are now keen investigate the various functions that alpha-hydroxy acid polymers might be able to carry out. They also intend to explore other types of simple chemicals that could interact with these polymers, possibly shedding light on how self-replicating chemical systems came about.

The article can be found at: Chandru et al. (2018) Simple Prebiotic Synthesis of High Diversity Dynamic Combinatorial Polyester Libraries.


Source: Tokyo Institute of Technology; Photo: Pexels.
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