A chemical compound essential to all living things has been synthesized in a lab under conditions that could have existed on early Earth, suggesting it played a role in the beginning of life, a study led by UCL researchers has found. New research shows.

The compound, pantethine, is the active fragment of Coenzyme A. It is important for metabolism — the chemical processes that sustain life. Early studies failed to effectively synthesize pantethene, leading to the suggestion that it was absent from the origin of life.

In the new study, published in the journal sciencethe research team created the compound in water at room temperature using molecules made from hydrogen cyanide, which was likely abundant on early Earth.

Once formed, the researchers said, it’s easy to imagine how pantothene might have aided the chemical reactions that led from the simple precursors of protein and RNA molecules to the first organisms — A moment that is believed to have happened 4 billion years ago.

The study challenges the view of some researchers in the field that water is too destructive for life to have originated in it, and that life most likely arose from pools that periodically dried up.

Driving the reactions that produced pantethene were energy-rich molecules called amino trails, which are chemically closely related to amino acids, the building blocks of proteins and life.

Members of the same team, led by Professor Matthew Powner (UCL Chemistry), have already used similar chemistry powered by aminotriols to show how other important biological components were produced early in life. can, including peptides (the protein-building chains of amino acids) and nucleotides (the building blocks of RNA and DNA).

Professor Powner, senior author of the paper, said: “This new study is further evidence that the basic structures of organisms, the basic molecules from which organisms are built, are likely to be formed by nitrile chemistry.

“The ease with which different classes of biological molecules can be made using nitriles has convinced me that there was a molecule like RNA before life, and an ‘RNA world’ before life began. Instead, the basic molecules of life emerged. Together — the network of RNAs, proteins, enzymes and cofactors that led to the first organisms.

“Our future work will look at how these molecules come together, for example how pantethine chemistry interacts with RNA, peptide and lipid chemistry, to provide chemistry that can be used to isolate individual classes of molecules. I cannot provide.”

A notable first attempt to synthesize pantethene was made in 1995 by the late American chemist Stanley Miller, who pioneered the field of origin-of-life experiments three decades earlier, producing amino acids from four simple chemicals in glass tubes. were done.

However, in the post-1995 experiment, the yield of pantethene was very low and required very large quantities of chemicals that were dried and sealed in an airtight tube before being heated to 100°C. .

Dr Jasper Fairchild (UCL Chemistry), a lead author of the study, who carried out the work as part of his PhD, said: “The big difference between Miller’s study and ours is that Miller tried to use acid chemistry, we used nitriles. Nitriles that bring energy and selectivity. Our reactions run only in water and produce high yields of pantethene with relatively low concentrations of chemicals required.”

Professor Powner added: “It was assumed that you had to make these molecules from acids, because the use of acids seems to be biological, and that’s what we’re taught at school and university. We’re taught that peptides are amino acids. Made from acid.

“Our work shows that this traditional approach has overlooked an essential component, the energy required to form new bonds. The reactions with nitriles look a little different but the end products — the basic units of biology. — are distinct whether they are formed by acid or nitrile chemistry.”

Although the paper focuses entirely on chemistry, the research team said the reaction they demonstrated could have possibly occurred in ponds or lakes of water on the early Earth (but unlikely in the oceans because the chemicals The number will be very high. thin).

The new study was supported by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, the Simon Foundation and the Volkswagen Foundation. As a result of his work on the origin of life, Professor Powner was named a finalist in the 2021 Blavatnik Awards for Young Scientists. The awards are for scientists age 42 or younger whose research is “already changing technology and our understanding of the world.”