Discovery may reveal how nature produced building blocks of life

Video: College of Engineering

A research team in the College of Engineering has uncovered a physical mechanism that may help answer one of the major questions concerning the origin of life, “How did the building blocks form?”

Victor Ugaz, a professor and holder of the Charles D. Holland ‘53 Professorship and the Thaman Professorship in the Artie McFerrin Department of Chemical Engineering, led the team. The team includes Yassin A. Hassan, a professor and holder of the Sallie & Don Davis ’61 Professorship as well as head of the Department of Nuclear Engineering.

Scientists have long known that the building blocks of life – amino acids, nucleobases and sugars – were present in the early ocean, but in very low concentration. For life to emerge, these building blocks needed to be combined and enriched into long-chain macromolecules. Identifying the process and mechanism driving this synthesis has been one of the largest questions concerning the origin of life.

“In the early ocean, those building blocks were present in the environment,” Ugaz said. “They were there, but they were so dilute; there is a question about how they combined. So one area of interest is what kind of concentration mechanism could have existed to enrich those components to a point where they could start to form longer chains, more complex molecules.”

In an article appearing in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, the research team describes a mechanism that may have played a major role in combining these dilute chemical building blocks into the long-chain macromolecules necessary for life.

The team explored this by creating a model system of cylindrical cells that mimic the structure of pores in mineral formations found near a recently discovered, new type of subsea hydrothermal vent. The temperature gradients within these vents function just like an ordinary lava lamp, circulating fluid within the tiny pore spaces.

Researchers found that these flows are surprisingly complex and chaotic – meaning that individual paths follow a rough general pattern, but no trajectories are identical. (For a demonstration, view the video above.)

This discovery made it possible to identify conditions where these flows are able to provide bulk homogenization of the various organic molecules present in the vents, while at the same time transport them to catalytically active pore surfaces where they absorb and react.

This research was supported in part by the National Science Foundation.

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