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Origin of life: New theory on synthesis of complex organic matter

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Researchers at the Max Planck Institut für Kohlenforschung have now disclosed the secret of a reaction that has to do with the synthesis of complex organic matter before the origin of life.

Since the 1960’s it has been well known that when concentrated hydrogen cyanide (HCN) is irradiated by UV light, it forms an imidazole intermediate that is a key substance for synthesis of nucleobases and nucleotides in abiotic environment. The way how UV radiation acts in this reaction to produce complex organic matter was, however, never clarified. Dr. Mario Barbatti and his colleagues in Germany, India and Czech Republic have now shown how this process occurs via computer simulations.

Using diverse computational-chemistry methods, the team has arrived at astonishing conclusions: For example that the reaction does not take place in the hot spot created by the solar radiation. “This has nothing to do with heat, but with electrons,” says Mario Barbatti.

It is noted that

The transformation works in a cold environment, as in comets and in terrestrial ices, where spontaneous HCN polymerization is most expected to occur.

So this theory would favour the “life came to earth via comets” thesis.

Chemists? Thoughts?

This study doesn't favor "life came to earth via comets" any more than it favors "life began on Earth." Your title is also deceivingly broad in its scope; the findings are simply a discovery of the chemical pathway that could have generated necessary chemical structures that are built upon to bring about some of the molecules our body uses today. This appears to be a small piece in the puzzle of the generation of life from inorganic matter. AVS
Rob, I apologize if I've missed (worse misunderstood) your position. Do you think life on Earth came about through comets. Apologies in advance if I'm really misunderstanding what you think. Sal scordova
Glad to see that commentators on UD are not intimidated by chemistry! And both Barb and Turell are right, the odds of life forming, even with all those wonderful polysyllabic things, is infinitesimal. But instead of grabbing for the brass ring, perhaps we can concentrate on riding the pony. The point this article is making, is that Darwin's warm pond doesn't work. Sure, heat makes reactions run faster, but it also makes them degrade faster. What we need, should we want a "hands-off" reaction to proceed, is a chemical ratchet, a way to get favorable reactions to occur, and unfavorable ones to desist. A warm pond goes both directions, and Darwin didn't have enough chemistry to know that. What we need is precisely what this article says. (a) a low entropy form of energy--UV light--and (b) a low entropy concentrator--cold trap. This chemical ratchet builds up necessary ingredients for the next step in our synthesis--perihelion of the comet, where for a brief time we melt the ice, mix the ingredients, coax the next product, and promptly freeze again while we inject our UV light for another 1000 years. And no, this doesn't produce life, but yes, it can make some really interesting chemicals. The next step is "comet calculus" or what I call the "cosmic carbeurator" -- mixing fluids to achieve digital calculations. A heirarchy of these "calculating machines" becomes one awesome computer. Robert Sheldon
Let's allow for a comet to come to Earth and "seed" it with amino acids. Let's say that there are millions of amino acids in the comet, hundreds of different kinds, roughly half of them in a left-handed form and half right-handed. Would the amino acids now connect up in long chains to make proteins? Would only the 20 kinds needed be selected by chance out of the hundreds of kinds in the soup? And from these 20 kinds, would chance select only the left-handed forms found in living organisms? And then line them up in the right order for each distinctive protein and in the exact shape required for each one? Let's say that the answer to all the above questions is "yes". Are we on the way to life? Not just yet. A typical protein has about 100 amino acids and contains many thousands of atoms. In its life processes a living cell uses some 200,000 proteins. Two thousand of them are enzymes, special proteins without which the cell cannot survive. What are the chances of these enzymes forming at random in the soup—if you had the soup? One chance in 10/40,000. This is 1 followed by 40,000 zeros. Or, stated differently, the chance is the same as rolling dice and getting 50,000 sixes in a row. And that is for only 2,000 of the 200,000 needed for a living cell. So to get them all, roll 5,000,000 more sixes in a row! Let's again say that we hit the cosmic jackpot. Assume that the comet's amino acids somehow formed proteins. But what about nucleotides? They are needed to make the nucleic acids (DNA, RNA); oh, and proteins cannot be assembled without the nucleic acids, nor can nucleic acids form without proteins. So which came first? Barb
So, some imidazole molecules may have been lying around on an Earth with no amino acids. Still only eight amino acids have been found in the meteorites studied and life needs 20, Where are the enzymes that would help the imidazoles to combine in whatever reaction is proposed as a next step. The OOL folks have lots of fun with these lab adventures, but after 60 years of research no one knows how life could have possibly started. turell

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