Researchers outline new origins for DNA components

  With the Curiosity rover rolling slowly across the surface of Mars in search of signs of water, and just possibly signs of life, scientists cannot help but once again raise the big question about the origin of life on…

 

With the Curiosity rover rolling slowly across the surface of Mars in search of signs of water, and just possibly signs of life, scientists cannot help but once again raise the big question about the origin of life on Earth.

ArsTechnica reports that researchers at the Cambridge-based MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology believe they have made a crucial breakthrough in understanding the chemistry that led to organic life.
While the origins of life might seem like more of the purview of biologists, paleontologists or maybe philosophers, chemical engineering research actually holds a critical role in the process.
In research now published in Nature Chemistry, the MRC Lab researchers demonstrate that they can successfully create two important precursors to the complex chemical cytosine, a primary component of DNA and RNA, using a fairly simple reaction.
This process requires only the presence of hydrogen cyanide, a substance that forms naturally in many different environments and is composed of three common elements: hydrogen, carbon and nitrogen.
When exposed to regular ultraviolet light in the presence of copper, hydrogen cyanide can break down and reform into a variety of more complex compounds, at least when certain other chemicals are removed from the equation. Among these compounds are glycolaldehyde and glyceraldehyde, two precursors to cytosine.
This research dovetails with an earlier investigation from the same group that suggests there might have been an alternative path for simple chemicals to “evolve” into the basic components of DNA. The new approach would require only four compounds for the eventual synthesis of cytosine, and the latest experiments seem to indicate that two of them can easily result from a fairly simple process.
Other research this year has also served to push forward possible explanations of the development of DNA. In January, The Scripps Research Institute announced the discovery of an alternative approach to the formation of ribose, one of the fundamental components of DNA and RNA aside from the four bases.
“We were working in uncharted territory,” said Ramanarayanan Krishnamurthy, a Scripps Research chemist and leader of the project. “We didn’t know what to expect but the glyoxylate scenario with respect to formation of carbohydrates is not a hypothesis anymore, it’s an experimental fact.”
Scientists are still some distance off from definitively outlining the formation of life, but the current research seems to be coming steadily closer to a functional model of the process.
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