How did we get from single cells to the life forms we see — and are — today? Researchers say they’ve found the missing link to this puzzle in RNA molecules.
The new research — which involves two studies, one led by Charles Carter and one led by Richard Wolfenden, both of the University of North Carolina — suggests a way for RNA to control the production of proteins by working with simple amino acids that does not require the more complex enzymes that exist today. [7 Theories on the Origin of Life on Earth]
Missing RNA link
This link would bridge this gap in knowledge between the primordial chemical soup and the complex molecules needed to build life. Current theories say life on Earth started in an “RNA world,” in which the RNA molecule guided the formation of life, only later taking a backseat to DNA, which could more efficiently achieve the same end result. Like DNA, RNA is a helix-shaped molecule that can store or pass on information. (DNA is a double-stranded helix, whereas RNA is single-stranded.) Many scientists think the first RNA molecules existed in a primordial chemical soup — probably pools of water on the surface of Earth billions of years ago. [Photo Timeline: How the Earth Formed]
The idea was that the very first RNA molecules formed from collections of three chemicals: a sugar (called a ribose); a phosphate group, which is a phosphorus atom connected to oxygen atoms; and a base, which is a ring-shaped molecule of carbon, nitrogen, oxygen and hydrogen atoms. RNA also needed nucleotides, made of phosphates and sugars.
The question: How did the nucleotides come together within the soupy chemicals to make RNA? John Sutherland, a chemist at the University of Cambridge in England, published a study in May in the journal Nature Chemistry that showed that a cyanide-based chemistry could make two of the four nucleotides in RNA and many amino acids.
That still left questions, though. There wasn’t a good mechanism for putting nucleotidestogether to make RNA. Nor did there seem to be a natural way for amino acids to string together and form proteins. Today, adenosine triphosphate (ATP) does the job of linking amino acids into proteins, activated by an enzyme called aminoacyl tRNA synthetase. But there’s no reason to assume there were any such chemicals around billions of years ago.
Also, proteins have to be shaped a certain way in order to function properly. That means RNA has to be able to guide their formation — it has to “code” for them, like a computer running a program to do a task.
Carter noted that it wasn’t until the past decade or two that scientists were able to duplicate the chemistry that makes RNA build proteins in the lab. “Basically, the only way to get RNA was to evolve humans first,” he said. “It doesn’t do it on its own.”