Prebiotic chemistry

Understanding how the simple molecules present on the early Earth may have given rise to the complex systems and processes of contemporary biology is widely regarded as one of chemistry's great unsolved questions. A collection of articles in this focus highlight some of the latest research in this area, including work that supports the RNA-world hypothesis.



The ascent of molecules p349


A collection of articles in this issue focuses on the chemical origin of life — how simple molecules present on the early Earth could have evolved into the complex dynamic biochemistry that we know today.

Subject terms: Biochemistry | Chemical biology | General chemistry

See also: Article by Engelhart et al. | Article by Bowler et al. | News and Views by Hernández & Piccirilli | Interview



Asking original questions pp355 - 357


Matthew Powner from University College London talks with Nature Chemistry about his work on the chemical origin of life and how it has led him from PhD student to group leader.

See also: Article by Engelhart et al. | Article by Bowler et al. | News and Views by Hernández & Piccirilli | Editorial


News and Views

Chemical origins of life: Prebiotic RNA unstuck pp360 - 362

Armando R. Hernández & Joseph A. Piccirilli


Non-enzymatic copying of an RNA template is appealing as a transition from pre-life to an RNA world, but it has been difficult to demonstrate in the laboratory. Now, two separate studies focusing on RNA's backbone connectivity offer partial solutions to some of the problems raised with this hypothesis for the origin of life.

Subject terms: Biochemistry | Chemical biology | Organic chemistry

See also: Article by Engelhart et al. | Article by Bowler et al. | Editorial | Interview



Prebiotically plausible oligoribonucleotide ligation facilitated by chemoselective acetylation pp383 - 389

Frank R. Bowler, Christopher K. W. Chan, Colm D. Duffy, Béatrice Gerland, Saidul Islam, Matthew W. Powner, John D. Sutherland & Jianfeng Xu


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One theory for the abiogenesis of RNA involves ligation of shorter oligomers that are observed after dry-state condensation of mononucleotides. Here, the chemo- and regioselective acetylation of (oligo)nucleotides in water under prebiotically plausible conditions is described. This remarkable selectivity permits the rapid template-directed ligation of oligomers to favour extant 3′,5′-linkages.

Subject terms: Biochemistry | Chemical biology | Organic chemistry

See also: News and Views by Hernández & Piccirilli | Editorial | Interview

Functional RNAs exhibit tolerance for non-heritable 2′–5′ versus 3′–5′ backbone heterogeneity pp390 - 394

Aaron E. Engelhart, Matthew W. Powner & Jack W. Szostak


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An RNA aptamer and a ribozyme are both observed to retain a surprising degree of activity despite backbone heterogeneity caused by the presence of non-natural 2′–5′ phosphodiester linkages. These results suggest that absolute regioselectivity of non-enzymatic replication may not have been required for the emergence of RNA as the first biopolymer.

Subject terms: Biochemistry | Chemical biology

See also: News and Views by Hernández & Piccirilli | Editorial | Interview


From the archives

RNA catalysis through compartmentalization pp941 - 946

Christopher A. Strulson, Rosalynn C. Molden, Christine D. Keating & Philip C. Bevilacqua


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RNA compartmentalization is essential for cellular functions and may have played a pivotal role in the emergence of life. However, the consequences of compartmentalization on RNA catalysis have been largely unexplored. Here, partitioning of catalytic RNA in a two-phase aqueous polymer solution increased local RNA concentration, enhancing ribozyme kinetics.

Subject terms: Biochemistry | Catalysis

Prebiotic synthesis of simple sugars by photoredox systems chemistry pp895 - 899

Dougal Ritson & John D. Sutherland


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A demonstration of simple sugar synthesis from single carbon feedstocks would provide significant support for the involvement of RNA in the origin of life. Here, hydrogen cyanide is shown to feed a cyanocuprate photoredox cycle that ultimately provides both the starting material and the reducing power necessary for a Killiani–Fischer-type sugar synthesis.

Subject terms: Biochemistry | Organic chemistry | Photochemistry

Darwinian evolution of an alternative genetic system provides support for TNA as an RNA progenitor pp183 - 187

Hanyang Yu, Su Zhang & John C. Chaput


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The pre-RNA-world hypothesis postulates that RNA was preceded in the evolution of life by a simpler genetic material. Here, Darwinian evolution methods were used to generate a threose nucleic acid (TNA) aptamer. This result provides evidence that TNA could have served as an ancestral genetic system during an early stage of life.

Subject terms: Biochemistry | Chemical biology

A route to enantiopure RNA precursors from nearly racemic starting materials pp704 - 706

Jason E. Hein, Eric Tse & Donna G. Blackmond


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A drawback of recently reported prebiotic routes to RNA is a requirement for enantioenriched reactants. Here, the presence of a slightly enantioenriched amino acid in the reaction mixture is shown to drive the formation of enantiopure RNA precursors. This provides a plausible scenario in which single-handed biological molecules were formed prior to the emergence of self-replicating informational polymers.

Subject terms: Biochemistry | Organic chemistry

Efficient enzyme-free copying of all four nucleobases templated by immobilized RNA pp603 - 608

Christopher Deck, Mario Jauker & Clemens Richert


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A long-standing problem with the RNA-world hypothesis is that enzyme-free replication of RNA strands has not been demonstrated. Here, immobilization of a template strand and periodic replacement of a solution containing activated nucleotides allows the copying of unmodified RNA sequences containing any of the four natural nucleobases in near-quantitative yield.

Subject terms: Biochemistry | Organic chemistry

Self-reproduction of supramolecular giant vesicles combined with the amplification of encapsulated DNA pp775 - 781

Kensuke Kurihara, Mieko Tamura, Koh-ichiroh Shohda, Taro Toyota, Kentaro Suzuki & Tadashi Sugawara


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The self-replication process of a giant vesicle encapsulating double-stranded DNA has been observed, which represents a supramolecular approach to the construction of a protocell. Growth and division of the vesicle occurred rapidly on addition of a membrane precursor, and amplified DNA was distributed amongst the resulting daughter giant vesicles.

Subject term: Supramolecular chemistry

Synthetic biology: Minimal cell mimicry pp755 - 756

Pier Luigi Luisi & Pasquale Stano


The self-reproduction of a giant lipid vesicle has been linked to the replication of encapsulated DNA — a promising combination for the construction of a minimalistic synthetic cell.

Subject term: Supramolecular chemistry

See also: Article by Kurihara et al.

Peptide–nucleotide microdroplets as a step towards a membrane-free protocell model pp720 - 724

Shogo Koga, David S. Williams, Adam W. Perriman & Stephen Mann


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Membrane-enclosed reaction compartments are considered important for establishing plausible pathways of prebiotic organization. Here, simple mixing of mononucleotides and cationic peptides in water is shown to produce microdroplets that sequester photo-active molecules, catalytic nanoparticles and enzymes. Such droplets might provide plausible pathways of prebiotic organization prior to the emergence of membrane-based compartmentalization on the early Earth.

Subject term: General chemistry

Synthesis of glycine-containing complexes in impacts of comets on early Earth pp949 - 954

Nir Goldman, Evan J. Reed, Laurence E. Fried, I.-F. William Kuo & Amitesh Maiti


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The formation of simple prebiotic organic compounds on early Earth is thought to be an important step in the origin of life. Molecular dynamics simulations of the conditions within cometary ice during planetary impact suggest a possible mechanism for the formation of glycine, an amino acid.

Subject Category: Theoretical chemistry

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