Reactions in tiny droplets of water may have given rise to some of the molecules essential for the origin of life. These reactions, which require a lot of energy in large vats of liquids, are nearly spontaneous in small droplets, researchers report today (October 23) in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The finding suggests that the building blocks of life, including DNA, RNA, and materials used in cell walls and energy storage, may have been generated in mists and sea sprays on early Earth.
[Researcher Richard] Zare and colleagues wanted to see if sea spray might have played a role in the reactions that generated prebiotic material, so they used nitrogen gas to generate a fine mist out of a solution of sugar, an RNA base called uracil, and phosphoric acid. After about 300 milliseconds, the team sniffed out the resulting compounds in the mist using a mass spectrometer, and found they included sugar phosphates and uridine—a component of RNA made up of uracil plus a simple sugar.
The initial compounds had undergone phosphorylation reactions, the team realized—a significant finding because phosphorylation is central to all metabolism in life today.
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