Prebiotic chemistry: a new modus operandi

  • Powner M
  • Sutherland J
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A variety of macromolecules and small molecules{\textemdash}(oligo)nucleotides, proteins, lipids and metabolites{\textemdash}are collectively considered essential to early life. However, previous schemes for the origin of life{\textemdash}e.g. the {\textquoteleft}RNA world{\textquoteright} hypothesis{\textemdash}have tended to assume the initial emergence of life based on one such molecular class followed by the sequential addition of the others, rather than the emergence of life based on a mixture of all the classes of molecules. This view is in part due to the perceived implausibility of multi-component reaction chemistry producing such a mixture. The concept of systems chemistry challenges such preconceptions by suggesting the possibility of molecular synergism in complex mixtures. If a systems chemistry method to make mixtures of all the classes of molecules considered essential for early life were to be discovered, the significant conceptual difficulties associated with pure RNA, protein, lipid or metabolism {\textquoteleft}worlds{\textquoteright} would be alleviated. Knowledge of the geochemical conditions conducive to the chemical origins of life is crucial, but cannot be inferred from a planetary sciences approach alone. Instead, insights from the organic reactivity of analytically accessible chemical subsystems can inform the search for the relevant geochemical conditions. If the common set of conditions under which these subsystems work productively, and compatibly, matches plausible geochemistry, an origins of life scenario can be inferred. Using chemical clues from multiple subsystems in this way is akin to triangulation, and constitutes a novel approach to discover the circumstances surrounding the transition from chemistry to biology. Here, we exemplify this strategy by finding common conditions under which chemical subsystems generate nucleotides and lipids in a compatible and potentially synergistic way. The conditions hint at a post-meteoritic impact origin of life scenario.

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  • Matthew W Powner

  • John D Sutherland

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