Life on Earth began more than three billion years ago, evolving from the most basic of microbes into a dazzling array of complex life forms.
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 (March 2015) 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 favourite 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.
~ Cassiopeia Project