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Synthesis of long prebiotic oligomers on mineral surfaces


MOST theories of the origin of biological organization assume that polymers with lengths in the range of 30–60 monomers are needed to make a genetic system viable1. But it has not proved possible to synthesize plausibly prebiotic polymers this long by condensation in aqueous solution, because hydrolysis competes with polymerization. The potential of mineral surfaces to facilitate prebiotic polymerization was pointed out long ago2. Here we describe a system that models prebiotic polymerization by the oligomerization of activated monomers—both nucleotides and amino acids. We find that whereas the reactions in solution produce only short oligomers (the longest typically being a 10-mer), the presence of mineral surfaces (montmorillonite for nucleotides, illite and hydroxylapatite for amino acids) induces the formation of oligomers up to 55 monomers long. These are formed by successive 'feedings' with the monomers; polymerization takes place on the mineral surfaces in a manner akin to solid-phase synthesis of biopolymers3,4.

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Ferris, J., Hill, A., Liu, R. et al. Synthesis of long prebiotic oligomers on mineral surfaces. Nature 381, 59–61 (1996).

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