A minimal cell can be thought of as comprising informational, compartment-forming and metabolic subsystems. To imagine the abiotic assembly of such an overall system, however, places great demands on hypothetical prebiotic chemistry. The perceived differences and incompatibilities between these subsystems have led to the widely held assumption that one or other subsystem must have preceded the others. Here we experimentally investigate the validity of this assumption by examining the assembly of various biomolecular building blocks from prebiotically plausible intermediates and one-carbon feedstock molecules. We show that precursors of ribonucleotides, amino acids and lipids can all be derived by the reductive homologation of hydrogen cyanide and some of its derivatives, and thus that all the cellular subsystems could have arisen simultaneously through common chemistry. The key reaction steps are driven by ultraviolet light, use hydrogen sulfide as the reductant and can be accelerated by Cu(I)–Cu(II) photoredox cycling.
α-D-ribofuranosyl cytidine-2',3'-cyclic phosphate
α-D-ribofuranosyl uridine-2',3'-cyclic phosphate
In memoriam Harry Lonsdale. This work was supported by the Medical Research Council (No. MC_UP_A024_1009), a grant from the Simons Foundation (No. 290362 to J.D.S.) and an award from the Origin of Life Challenge.