R&D magazine

Research led by Kuhan Chandru and Jim Cleaves from the Earth-Life Science Institute at Tokyo Institute of Technology, Japan, has shown that reactions of alpha-hydroxy acids, similar to the alpha-amino acids that make up modern proteins, form large polymers easily under conditions presumed prevalent on early Earth. These alpha-hydroxy acid polymers may have aided in the formation of living systems on early Earth.
While environments of early Earth might have had monomers that could give rise to life, it would have been difficult for polymers to arise from these without the help of enzymes. In this case, the team showed these polymers could have formed with alpha-hydroxy acids before the existence of enzymes on early Earth.
This multi-national team showed that hydroxy acids polymerize more easily than amino acids, and that they could have provided the necessary toolkit to kick-start the formation of more complex molecules for the origin of life on Earth.
Abstract: It is widely believed that the origin of life depended on environmentally driven complexification of abiotically produced organic compounds. Polymerization is one type of such complexification, and it may be important that many diverse polymer sequences be produced for the sake of selection. Not all compound classes are easily polymerized under the environmental conditions present on primitive planets, and it is possible that life’s origin was aided by other monomers besides those used in contemporary biochemistry. Here we show that alpha-hydroxy acids, which are plausibly abundant prebiotic monomers, can be oligomerized to generate vast, likely sequence-complete libraries, which are also stable for significant amounts of time. This occurs over a variety of reaction conditions (temperature, concentration, salinity, and presence of congeners) compatible with geochemical settings on the primitive Earth and other solar system environments. The high-sequence heterogeneity achievable with these compounds may be useful for scaffolding the origin of life.