Magazine article Science News

Origins of Life: Keys to an Early Chemical

Magazine article Science News

Origins of Life: Keys to an Early Chemical

Article excerpt

Given the intricacy of life's molecular processes, questions surrounding the earliest biochemistry loom large. How, for instance, did life's key chemical components arise on Earth -- and in what order?

Addressing these questions, Anthony D. Keefe, Gerald L. Newton, and Stanley L. Miller, all chemists at the University of California, San Diego, describe in the Feb. 23 Nature, a possible pathway for the evolution of an important biological molecule. They report synthesizing, in conditions similar to those most likely present on early Earth, the molecule pantetheine.

Pantetheine forms a chunk of a larger molecule, coenzyme A. Because coenzyme A acts in conjunction with other enzymes to facilitate reactions in living organisms, the authors believe it may have "acted in this capacity very early in the development of life on Earth."

Among other things, coenzyme A helps amino acids hook together and aids in making peptides. Both functions may have supported early evolution of proteins and nucleic acids, such as RNA and DNA.

Moreover, the building blocks of coenzyme A "have been shown to be probable prebiotic compounds," the chemists observe. In their current experiment, they show that pantetheine can form at temperatures as low as 40o Celsius, in circumstances typical of evaporating bodies of water beside beaches and lagoons. "These results suggest that pantetheine could have been a component of the prebiotic soup," they say.

While stressing that "nobody knows the exact sequence of events that led to life," Miller adds that "this finding opens many questions. …

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