Friday, January 20, 2012

10 Unsolved Mysteries -> How Did Life Begin?

The moment when the first living beings arose from inanimate matter almost four billion years ago is still shrouded in mystery. How did relatively simple molecules in the primordial broth give rise to more and more complex compounds? And how did some of those compounds begin to process energy and replicate (two of the defining characteristics of life)? At the molecular level, all of those steps are, of course, chemical reactions, which makes the question of how life began one of chemistry.

The challenge for chemists is no longer to come up with vaguely plausible scenarios, of which there are plenty. For example, researchers have speculated about minerals such as clay acting as catalysts for the formation of the first self-replicating polymers (molecules that, like DNA or proteins, are long chains of smaller units); about chemical complexity fueled by the energy of deep-sea hydrothermal vents; and about an "RNA world," in which DNA’s cousin RNA—which can act as an enzyme and catalyze reactions the way proteins do—would have been a universal molecule before DNA and proteins appeared.

No, the game is to figure out how to test these ideas in reactions coddled in the test tube. Researchers have shown, for example, that certain relatively simple chemicals can spontaneously react to form the more complex building blocks of living systems, such as amino acids and nucleotides, the basic units of DNA and RNA. In 2009 a team led by John Sutherland, now at the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge, England, was able to demonstrate the formation of nucleotides from molecules likely to have existed in the primordial broth. Other researchers have focused on the ability of some RNA strands to act as enzymes, providing evidence in support of the RNA world hypothesis. Through such steps, scientists may progressively bridge the gap from inanimate matter to selfreplicating, self-sustaining systems.

Now that scientists have a better view of strange and potentially fertile environments in our solar system—the occasional flows of water on Mars, the petrochemical seas of Saturn’s moon Titan, and the cold, salty oceans that seem to lurk under the ice of Jupiter’s moons Europa and Ganymede—the origin of terrestrial life seems only a part of grander questions: Under what circumstances can life arise? And how widely can its chemical basis vary? That issue is made richer still by the discovery, over the past 16 years, of more than 500 extrasolar planets orbiting other stars—worlds of bewildering variety.

These discoveries have pushed chemists to broaden their imagination about the possible chemistries of life. For instance, NASA has long pursued the view that liquid water is a prerequisite, but now scientists are not so sure. How about liquid ammonia, formamide, an oily solvent like liquid methane or supercritical hydrogen on Jupiter? And why should
life restrict itself to DNA, RNA and proteins? After all, several artificial chemical systems have now been made that exhibit a kind of replication from the component parts without relying on nucleic acids. All you need, it seems, is a molecular system that can serve as a template for making a copy and then detach itself.

Looking at life on Earth, says chemist Steven Benner of the Foundation for Applied Molecular Evolution in Gainesville, Fla., “we have no way to decide whether the similarities [such as the use of DNA and proteins] reflect common ancestry or the needs of life universally.” But if we retreat into saying that we have to stick with what we know, he says, “we have no fun.”

Source of Information : Scientific American Magazine

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