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Opinion: Studies on the origin of life — the end of the beginning

Abstract

Understanding how life on Earth might have originated is the major goal of origins of life chemistry. To proceed from simple feedstock molecules and energy sources to a living system requires extensive synthesis and coordinated assembly to occur over numerous steps, which are governed only by environmental factors and inherent chemical reactivity. Demonstrating such a process in the laboratory would show how life can start from the inanimate. If the starting materials were irrefutably primordial and the end result happened to bear an uncanny resemblance to extant biology — for what turned out to be purely chemical reasons, albeit elegantly subtle ones — then it could be a recapitulation of the way that natural life originated. We are not yet close to achieving this end, but recent results suggest that we may have nearly finished the first phase: the beginning.

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Figure 1: Difficulties of one-carbon compound dimerization and how to achieve the equivalent.
Figure 2: Underlying similarities between extant metabolism and cyanosulfidic protometabolism.
Figure 3: Transition to life: onwards and upwards.
Figure 4: Towards RNA cycling.

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Acknowledgements

This work was supported by the Medical Research Council (No. MC_UP_A024_1009), and a grant from the Simons Foundation (No. 290362 to J.D.S.). J.D.S. thanks members of his group for helpful discussions and suggestions.

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Correspondence to John D. Sutherland.

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Sutherland, J. Opinion: Studies on the origin of life — the end of the beginning. Nat Rev Chem 1, 0012 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41570-016-0012

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