Chemical reactions in volcanic pools could have supported life on Earth.

Michael S. Nolan/Global

One of the most important molecules in living things is synthesized from scratch under everyday conditions. The findings suggest that the chemical could have formed naturally early in our planet’s history and played a role in the origin of life.

The substance in question is called pantethine. It is not a household name at the DNA or protein level. However, pantethene is a key component of a larger molecule. acetyl coenzyme A, A “cofactor” that helps enzymes work.

“Coenzyme A occurs in every living organism that has ever been formed,” says Matthew Power at University College London.

Powner has spent much of his career finding ways to make biological molecules from simple chemicals that could occur naturally. Over the past decade, he’s shown it’s easy. aminonitriles Can be used to make Nucleotides – building blocks of DNA – and Peptides The shortened version of the protein.

His team has now shown that aminonitriles can be used to make pentaethene in a series of reactions starting with simple chemicals like formaldehyde. It occurs in water, often in concentrations so dilute that the reaction mixtures look like pure water. Sometimes the team used heat to speed things up, but otherwise didn’t need to interfere while the reaction was going on.

“It’s just one pot — literally just put it all in, don’t change anything, don’t do anything — and we get 60 percent of our product,” Powner says.

Acetyl coenzyme A is involved in the synthesis of many biologically important chemicals. Some of the oldest groups of microorganisms use this process to obtain carbon from the atmosphere.

Importantly, pentathene is the active part of the acetyl coenzyme A molecule. The second bit is “not essential to its function,” Ponner says.

These types of cofactors are found in all living organisms. They are described as The origin of life and vestiges of early evolution.

“Deriving any key organic biological cofactor from scratch” would be impressive, “let alone one of such central importance”, he says. Zachary Adam at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, who were not involved in the research.

For Adam, the significance of the study goes beyond pantothene and acetyl coenzyme A. “They’re reporting this particular part of the cofactor, but the intermediates are being shown to be just as important,” he says. Other chemicals produced in the pathway have been shown to help make other biological molecules. “They’re building this network of compounds.”

Many theories of the origin of life assume that a small set of biological molecules formed long before others. For example, the “RNA world” hypothesis suggests that the first life was made entirely of RNA, with other chemicals such as proteins and lipids added later when RNA was able to make them.

Powerer is one of a number of researchers emphasizing this. A different view, in which many key molecules are initially formed and interact from the outset. “All these products could be products of the same chemical reaction,” he says. Instead of starting with just RNA or just peptides, “it might be easier to make them all together, and then the chemistry they do is actually coordinated”.