New Evidence Emerges on the Origins of Life

Posted by on June 3, 2015 in Earth & Space, Sci-Tech, Science with 0 Comments

Article Source: Phys.org

New research shows that the close linkage between the physical properties of amino acids, the genetic code, and protein folding was likely the key factor in the evolution from building blocks to organisms in Earth's primordial soup. Credit: Gerald Prins

New research shows that the close linkage between the physical properties of amino acids, the genetic code, and protein folding was likely a key factor in evolution from building blocks to organisms in Earth's primordial soup. Credit: Gerald Prins

In the beginning, there were simple chemicals. And they produced amino acids that eventually became the proteins necessary to create single cells. And the single cells became plants and animals. Recent research is revealing how the primordial soup created the amino acid building blocks, and there is widespread scientific consensus on the evolution from the first cell into plants and animals. But it's still a mystery how the building blocks were first assembled into the proteins that formed the machinery of all cells. Now, two long-time University of North Carolina scientists – Richard Wolfenden, PhD, and Charles Carter, PhD – have shed new light on the transition from building blocks into life some 4 billion years ago.

“Our work shows that the close linkage between the physical properties of amino acids, the genetic code, and protein folding was likely essential from the beginning, long before large, sophisticated molecules arrived on the scene,” said Carter, professor of biochemistry and biophysics at the UNC School of Medicine. “This close interaction was likely the key factor in the evolution from building blocks to organisms.”

Their findings, published in companion papers in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, fly in the face of the problematic “RNA world” theory, which posits that RNA – the molecule that today plays roles in coding, regulating, and expressing genes – elevated itself from the primordial soup of amino acids and cosmic chemicals to give rise first to short proteins called peptides and then to single-celled organisms.

Wolfenden and Carter argue that RNA did not work alone; in fact, it was no more likely that RNA catalyzed peptide formation than it was for peptides to catalyze RNA formation.

The finding adds a new layer to the story of how life evolved billions of years ago.

Its name was LUCA

The scientific community recognizes that 3.6 billion years ago there existed the last universal common ancestor, or LUCA, of all living things presently on Earth. It was likely a single-cell organism. It had a few hundred genes. It already had complete blueprints for DNA replication, protein synthesis, and RNA transcription. It had all the basic components – such as lipids – that modern organisms have. From LUCA forward, it's relatively easy to see how life as we know it evolved.

Before 3.6 billion years, however, there is no hard evidence about how LUCA arose from a boiling caldron of chemicals that formed on Earth after the creation of the planet about 4.6 billion years ago. Those chemicals reacted to form amino acids, which remain the building blocks of proteins in our own cells today.

“We know a lot about LUCA and we are beginning to learn about the chemistry that produced building blocks like amino acids, but between the two there is a desert of knowledge,” Carter said. “We haven't even known how to explore it.”

The UNC research represents an outpost in that desert.

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