[Last Update: June 28th, 2018]
D. Jon Scott’s Website ► Science ► Physics ► Chemistry ► Organic Chemistry
Copyright © 2018 by Dustin Jon Scott
The half-lives of the nucleobases guanine, adenine, cytosine, and uracil are far too short (t½ for adenine and guanine ≈ 1 year; uracil = 12 years; cytosine = 19 days) at the 80-110°C temperatures hypothesized in hydrothermal vent scenarios for the origin of life (based on the preferred temperature ranges of hyperthermophiles, assumed by hydrothermal vent scenarios to be among the oldest extant lineages of living things), and indeed are too unstable at temperatures much above 0°C, to allow for the formation of the first replicators in a reasonably long timespan, indicating a low-temperature origin of life (Levy & Miller, 1998).
RNA hydrolyzes rapidly (Szostak, 2012; part 3), and is especially prone to doing so in hot environments, much to the chagrin of those who favor hydrothermal vent models for the origin of life.
While hydrothermal vent hypotheses imply a hyperthermophilic progenote with an optimal growth temperature (OGT) ≥80°C, which is consistent with thermophilia (OGT=65±15°C) in the last bacterial ancestor as well as the last archaeal ancestor as part of a more-or-less linear progression to the overwhelmingly mesophilic (OGT≤50°C) modern prokaryotic domains, dual phylogenic rRNA and protein analyses show that while both the bacterial ancestor and the archaeal ancestor were thermophilic (OGT=65°C±15°C), the LUCA was mesophilic with an OGT≤50°C (Boussau &al., 2008).
The very first protocells were likely obligate cryophiles with an OGT≈1°C (Szostak, 2012; part 1)
The hydrothermal vent model, though seemingly ruled out, would give us a mathematically elegant and thermodynamically sensible sequence of OGT≥80°C, OGT=65±15°C, OGT≤50°C and a cellular LUCA model gives us a progressive OGT≈0°C, OGT≤50°C, OGT=65±15°C thermotolerance sequence before a general decline to OGT≤50°C with a few modern lineages OGT=65±15°C or even OGT≥80°C, while a precellular LUCA model merely gives us an OGT≤50°C; OGT≥50°C threshold separating the cryophilic-to-mesophilic nucleobases, RNA, LUCA, and protocells, and the thermophilic-to-hyperthermophilic first true lifeforms, followed eventually by diversification into various levels of thermotolerance.
Cool Early Earth model.
Here, however, we run into another problem. Water is highly corrosive, and would've been deadly to the first RNA-based replicators (Barras, 2014)
While the "plausibility" criterion for a given chemical pathway suggested as being involved in prebiotic synthesis generally requires that the chemical environment has to be one which could have plausibly been present on the early Earth, such a criterion ignores that the early Earth isn't the only place that life could have formed. Such is an a priori assumption completely unsupported, and one might go so far as to say contradicted, by all experimental and observational data thus far gathered. The Earth is but one planet among thousands known and among billions thought to exist in our galaxy alone. Furthermore, there is no particular reason to hypothesize that the generation of life is something which must occur on a planet at all! Especially when one considers how early in the geological record life first began to appear on Earth, other environments such as other Solar planets, exoplanets, planetesimals, asteroids, comets, moons, protoplanetary disks, protostellar nebulae and the stelliferous nebulae (star-forming regions of giant molecular clouds) to which they belong, as well as any interactions between such systems, must all be considered as potential environments for the various stages of prebiotic synthesis, and "plausibility" determined only when a particular chemical pathway has been demonstrated to be likely (or not) in one of such environments. An early-Earth-based "plausibility" criterion is, frankly, an unnatural constraint which ignores the fact that in our universe, no planet is an island.
The hardiness of bacteria features in many lithopanspermia models, the most conservative of which are interplanetary lithopanspermia models, most relavent to we Earthlings in the hypothetical case of Mars-Earth interplanetary lithopanspermia, in which life found its way to Earth from our neighbor, Mars.
We know that bacteria could have been ejected into space by planetary impacts (Stoffler et al. 2006), survive the subsequent rapid acceleration (Mastrapaa et al. 2001), survive exposure to vacuum and high radiation (Saffary &al., 2002; Bucker & Horneck, 1970; Horneck, 1971; Nicholson, &al. 2005), thrive and grow in asteroidal and meteoritic interiors (Mautner 2002), survive re-entry into a planetary atmosphere (blah) and subsequent impact (blah),
Deinococcus radiodurans, first isolated in Corvallis, Oregon, in 1956 (Anderson, &al.)
Radioresistance in bacteria. Mars fertile for life before Earth.
“So, back to the period of heavy bombardment and with computer simulations you can, you can model what happens when an impact hits a planetary surface. And it's not much different from if you sprinkle Cheerios on a bed [...] and then you smack the surface of the bed, there's a— a sort of a recoil in effect and Cheerios pop upwards. It turns out Mars may have been wet — we've known at some point it had water — and fertile for life before Earth, and at this period of heavy bombardment if it had started life — surely it would've been simple life, as we've no reason to think otherwise — we've learned bacteria can be quite hardy, as I'm sure you know, so we imagine a bacterial stowaway in the nooks and crannies in one of these rocks that are cast back into space. In fact if you do the calculation, there's hundreds of tons of Mars rocks that should that should have fallen to Earth by now, over the history of the Solar system. Maybe one of those rocks carried life from Mars to Earth, seeding life on Earth. My great disappointment would be going to Mars and finding Mars life based on DNA. That it would not've been a separate experiment in life.” — Neil Degrasse Tyson to Richard Dawkins (Dawkins & Tyson, 2016, 6:05-7:24 minutes in)
Microbe-containing impact ejecta from Earth may be subsequently pulverized by collisions into micron-sized particles that, though large enough to contain colonies of microbial life and shield them from UV radiation, would be small enough to be carried out to the Kuiper Belt via Solar winds eventually to be deposited in the protoplanetary discs of future planetary systems as the Solar system moves through interstellar dust clouds in its course through the Milky Way (Wallis, 2003; Napier, 2003), seeding the Milky Way in just a few billion years, which, considering any Earth-like planet could hypothetically have done the same, makes it highly unlikely that Earth Herself was not a benefactor of such a process (Napier, 2003).
The earliest stages of life on Earth very likely antedate the Earth Herself. This idea has been variously referred to as “molecular panspermia", “quasi-panspermia", or “pseudo-panspermia".
"Essential to the spontaneous origin of life was the availability of organic molecules as building blocks. The famous ‘prebiotic soup’ experiment by Stanley Miller (Miller 1953, Miller-Urey experiment) had shown that amino acids, the building blocks of proteins, arose among other small organic molecules spontaneously by reacting a mixture of methane, hydrogen, ammonia and water in a spark discharge apparatus. These conditions were assumed to simulate those on the primitive Earth. Already in 1922 Oparin had proposed that the early Earth had such a reducing atmosphere (in his classic ‘The Origin of Life’ from 1936 he expanded on these ideas). Observations of Jupiter and Saturn had shown that they contained ammonia and methane, and large amounts of hydrogen were inferred to be present there as well (it is now known that hydrogen is the main atmospheric component of these planets). These reducing atmospheres of the giant planets were regarded as captured remnants of the solar nebula and the atmosphere of the early Earth was assumed by analogy to have been similar." -- The Origin of Life by Albrecht Moritz
The conditions of the Miller-Urey experiments more closely resemble the conditions of the Solar nebular than the conditions of the primordial Earth (Hill & Nuth, 2003).
"Indigenous purines and pyrimidines have been detected in several carbonaceous chondrites. The pyrimidine uracil and the purines adenine, guanine, xanthine, and hypoxanthine (Stoks & Schwartz 1979, 1981) were detected in the CM carbonaceous chondrites Murchison and Murray, as well as in the CI meteorite Orgueil, in total concentrations of about 1.3 parts per million (ppm). Upper limits exist (detection limit of 0.01 ppm) for the concentrations of thymine and cytosine, as well as other heterocyclic compounds, in the Murchison meteorite (van der Velden & Schwartz 1977)."(Peeters et al., 2003)
The purine bases adenine and guanine have been detected in meteorites, although the only pyrimidine-base compound formally reported in meteorites is uracil (Stoks & Schwartz, 1979), however cytosine cannot be ruled out (Shapiro, 1998; Peeters et al., 2003; Martins et al., 2006) and ultraviolet irradiation of low-temperature ices (the dominant phase of H2O in cold astrophysical environments is ice, and most ices in such environments are H2O-rich) has been shown to produce not only amino acids, quinones, and amphiphiles, but have also, with the introduction of pyrimidine, been shown to produce uracil (Nuevo et al., 2009), cytosine, and even thymine, though the abiotic synthesis of thymine is less straightforward compared to other pyrimidine-base compounds (Sandford et al., 2014). (That this would logically make the prebiotic synthesis of RNA easier than that of DNA could explain why RNA has a larger repertoire of functions than does DNA in modern cells.) Additionally, ribose and related sugars have been produced experimentally in astrophysical ice analogues (Meinert et al., 2016).
Cytosine can be synthesized from cyano-acetylene and cayanate, this is unlikely to have occured in acqueous media as cayanate is rapidly hydrolized into CO2 and NH3.
Cyano-acetylene is an abundant interstellar molecule and can by produced by a spark discharge in a CH4/N2 environment.
hydrolysis of cyanoacetylene leads to cyanoacetaldehyde
reaction of cyanoacetaldehyde with urea produces cytosine in 30-50% yields
Hydrolysis of cytosine leads to uracil
Organic methyl cyanide in comet-forming region of MWC 480.
What all of this means is that hypothetical geochemical pathways for the production of key organic compounds here on Earth, though interesting, are completely superfluous, since the biochemical building blocks of life were already being produced astrochemically before the formation of the Earth. Occam's razor therefore dictates that such geochemical hypotheses for the prebiotic synthesis of organic compounds should be regarded as irrelevant to the origin of life problem.
Clear liquid turns brown as amino acids form peptides. Jennifer Blank. Experiment.
Amino acids + impact = peptides (Blank & al. 2001)
Planetesimals & chondrules
Being that ribonucleotides can form sugar-phosphate backbones in clays when frozen (cite) we should consider whether it be possible that the first RNA molecules were produced by the sublimation/condensation cycles of clayey, H2O-rich spinning grains along the snowline of the protoplanetary disc.
Figure out minimum grain size for clay sheet formation.
Ribonucleic peptide (PNA), uses peptides instead of phosphorylated ribose.
Rather than an “RNA world" on either Earth or Mars, the Last Universal Common Ancestor (LUCA) may have lain in the “RNA cloud" of the protoplanetary Solar nebula. The early RNA-based replicons wouldn't necessarily have been “life" in the modern sense of the word, and might have lacked lipid cell membranes as some researches (cite) have suggested for the LUCA even in purely terrestrial models, with the development of cell membranes being an example of parallel evolution. If the development of more modern features of life (or rather, the features we associate with “true life") such as cell-membranes, and possibly even thymine-using nucleic acid, occured separately on Earth and Mars, the result would be two independent evolutions of “true life" that would appear to be very closely related to one another by having shared a relatively recent amembranous RNA-based ancestor. DNA and cell membranes may have evolved separately in parallel simply because this was the most sensible way for the LUCA to respond to the two nearly identical new environments of early Earth and early Mars as the Solar nebula accreted into the terrestrial planets. (This also means it may not be a futile endeavor to search for past-life on Venus, as the environment of early Venus was very much like the environment of early Earth and early Mars, and a sort of “Bacteria from Mars, Archaea from Venus" scenario, with the eukarya developing on Earth, being most closely related to Venereal/Archaeal life but having incorporated Martian/Bacterial life in the form of mitochondria, isn't difficult to envision, either).
So while the first and most obvious objection to the idea of independent origins should be that all life on Earth appears to have descended from a common ancestor, it does not necessarily follow that all life on Earth must have originated on a single planetary body — this objection could only seem reasonable to researchers who wrongly assume that the environments of the planets have always been as isolated from one another as they presently appear to be, which is simply not the case. The early Solar system was a chaotic place; organic molecules were likely already present when the material that would later accrete into the planets were but a diffuse and relatively (compared to today) homogenous gas cloud, which “curdled" gradually into something like a vast asteroid field, the rocky, protoplanetary bodies growing larger and fewer in number as the material accreted until the planets we are now familiar with arose out of the chaos. When the planets were smaller and surrounded by yet-to-be-accreted debris, impacts would have logically been far more frequent, and the smaller sizes of the proto-planetary bodies relative to the modern planets would've meant that lower-speed impacts — and therefore a larger proportion of the impacts which occured — were kicking impact debris back into space.
— formation of the Milky Way
— formation of a star-forming region similar to the Orion Nebula
"in a large star-forming region that produced massive stars, possibly similar to the Orion Nebula. Studies of the structure of the Kuiper belt and of anomalous materials within it suggest that the Sun formed within a cluster of between 1,000 and 10,000 stars with a diameter of between 6.5 and 19.5 light years and a collective mass of 3,000 M☉. This cluster began to break apart between 135 million and 535 million years after formation."
— fragmentation of the GMC, first into fragments 1 parsec in diameter and then into "cloudlets" 0.01-0.1 parsecs or 2k-20k AU in diameter and around 1 M☉ (Montmerle, 2006).
— formation of the Pre-Solar Nebula, a fragment of the GMC about 1 M☉ (Montmerle, 2006).
4.6 GYA — beginning of the Stellar era (first million years of Solar evolution), the Disk era (first 10 million years of Solar evolution), and the Telluric era (first 100 million years of Solar evolution): formation of the Sun in a stellar cluster via accretion of a circumstellar disk fed by a progressively diminishing circumstellar envelope (Montmerle, 2006), possibly incited by a nearby supernova (Montmerle, 2006; Williams, 2009).
4.599 GYA — Stellar era ends, 99 million years prior to the end of the Telluric era and 90 million years prior to the end of the Disk era (Montmerle, 2006).
4.59 GYA — Disk era ends, 90 million years prior to the end of the Telluric era (Montmerle, 2006).
4.5682 GYA — oldest solid material in the Solar system.
4.55 GYA — formation of the Earth
4.53 GYA — formation of the Moon
4.5 GYA — Telluric era ends. Noachian period begins on Mars.
"Several simulations of our young Sun interacting with close-passing stars over the first 100 million years of its life produce anomalous orbits observed in the outer Solar System, such as detached objects."
4.4 GYA — "Cool Early Earth" begins
4.3 billion years ago — earliest evidence of liquid water
Planet migration. Nice model. Quaker belt? Kuiper belt? Ice falls inward, planets move outward. Jupiter orbits twice for every one Saturn orbit (2:1 resonance).
4.1 billion years ago — onset of The Late Heavy Bombardment (LHB), or lunar cataclysm; earliest evidence of biogenic carbon (Bell et al. 2015)..
4 billion years ago — "Cool Early Earth" ends, plate tectonics
3.8 billion years ago — end of The Late Heavy Bombardment (LHB), or lunar cataclysm.
3.5 billion years ago — Noachian period ends on Mars; establishment of the geomagnetic field on Earth, protecting the atmosphere from being swept away by Solar winds.
2.45 billion years ago — the Great Oxygenation Event.