By Steve Drury First PUBLISHED ON December 18, 2020
For self-replicating cells to form there are two essential precursors: water and simple compounds based on the elements carbon, hydrogen, oxygen and nitrogen (CHON).
Hydrogen is not a problem, being by far the most abundant element in the universe. Carbon, oxygen and nitrogen form in the cores of stars through nuclear fusion of hydrogen and helium. These elemental building blocks need to be delivered through supernova explosions, ultimately to where water can exist in liquid form to undergo reactions that culminate in living cells.
That is only possible on solid bodies that lie at just the right distance from a star to support average surface temperatures that are between the freezing and boiling points of water. Most important is that such a planet in the ‘Goldilocks Zone’ has sufficient mass for its gravity to retain water. Surface water evaporates to some extent to contribute vapour to the atmosphere. Exposed to ultraviolet radiation H2O vapour dissociates into molecular hydrogen and water, which can be lost to space if a planet’s escape velocity is less than the thermal vibration of such gas molecules. Such photo-dissociation and diffusion into outer space may have caused Mars to lose more hydrogen in this way than oxygen, to leave its surface dry but rich in reddish iron oxides.
Despite liquid water being essential for the origin of planetary life it is a mixed blessing for key molecules that support biology. This ‘water paradox’ stems from water molecules attacking and breaking the chemical connections that string together the complex chains of proteins and nucleic acids (RNA and DNA). Living cells resolve the paradox by limiting the circulation of liquid water within them by being largely filled with a gel that holds the key molecules together, rather than being bags of water as has been commonly imagined.
That notion stemmed from the idea of a ‘primordial soup’, popularised by Darwin and his early followers, which is now preserved in cells’ cytoplasm. That is now known to be wrong and, in any case, the chemistry simply would not work, either in a ‘warm, little pond’ or close to a deep sea hydrothermal vent, because the molecular chains would be broken as soon as they formed.
Modern evolutionary biochemists suggest that much of the chemistry leading to living cells must have taken place in environments that were sometimes dry and sometimes wet; ephemeral puddles on land. Science journalist Michael Marshall has just published an easily read, open-source essay on this vexing yet vital issue in Nature (Marshall, M. 2020. The Water Paradox and the Origins of Life. Nature, v. 588, p. 210-213; DOI: 10.1038/d41586-020-03461-4).
If you are interested, click on the link to read Marshall’s account of current origins-of-life research into the role of endlessly repeated wet-dry cycles on the early Earth’s surface. Fascinating reading as the experiments take the matter far beyond the spontaneous formation of the amino acid glycine found by Stanley Miller when he passed sparks through methane, ammonia and hydrogen in his famous 1953 experiment at the University of Chicago.
Marshall was spurred to write in advance of NASA’s Perseverance Mission landing on Mars in February 2021. The Perseverance rover aims to test the new hypotheses in a series of lake sediments that appear to have been deposited by wet-dry cycles in a small Martian impact crater (JezeroCrater) early in the planet’s history when surface water was present.
That CHON and simple compounds made from them are aplenty in interstellar gas and dust clouds has been known since the development of means of analysing the light spectra from them. The organic chemistry of carbonaceous meteorites is also well known; they even smell of hydrocarbons. Accretion of these primitive materials during planet formation is fine as far as providing feedstock for life-forming processes on physically suitable planets. But how did CHON get from giant molecular clouds into such planetesimals.
An odd-sounding organic compound – hexamethylenetetramine ((CH2)6N4), or HMT – formed industrially by combining formaldehyde (CH2O) and ammonia (NH3) – was initially synthesised in the late 19th century as an antiseptic to tackle UTIs and is now used as a solid fuel for lightweight camping stoves, as well as much else besides. HMT has a potentially interesting role to play in the origin of life. Experiments aimed at investigating what happens when starlight and thermal radiation pervade interstellar gas clouds to interact with simple CHON molecules, such as ammonia, formaldehyde, methanol and water, yielded up to 60% by mass of HMT.
The structure of HMT is a sort of cage, so that crystals form large fluffy aggregates, instead of the gases from which it can be formed in deep space. Together with interstellar silicate dusts, such sail-like structures could accrete into planetesimals in nebular star nurseries under the influence of gravity and light pressure. Geochemists from several Japanese institutions and NASA have, for the first time, found HMT in three carbonaceous chondrites, albeit at very low concentrations – parts per billion (Y. Oba et al. 2020. Extraterrestrial hexamethylenetetramine in meteorites — a precursor of prebiotic chemistry in the inner Solar System. Nature Communications, v. 11, article 6243; DOI: 10.1038/s41467-020-20038-x).
Once concentrated in planetesimals – the parents of meteorites when they are smashed by collisions – HMT can perform the useful chemical ‘trick’ of breaking down once again to very simple CHON compounds when warmed. At close quarters such organic precursors can engage in polymerising reactions whose end products could be the far more complex sugars and amino acid chains that are the characteristic CHON compounds of carbonaceous chondrites.
Yasuhiro Oba and colleagues may have found the missing link between interstellar space, planet formation and the synthesis of life through the mechanisms that resolve the ‘water paradox’ outlined by Michael Marshall.
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Many thanks to Steve Drury for permission to republish his article and to Bernie Bell for sending it to The Orkney News
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