New technology is enabling scientists to piece together the events that led to the early development of life on Earth.
Researchers from the University of Wisconsin-Madison are devising chemical reactions that mimic early Earth in an effort to learn about how life ultimately developed, as well as to unlock new capabilities for modern medicine.
“If you can get chemistries that encode information, then maybe you can design new drugs,” John Yin, a professor of chemical and biological engineering at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, said in a statement. “I view this as systems chemistry.
“How do we take store-bought chemicals and combine them in such a way that they display emergent properties like the ability to store information or copy themselves?” he added.
The researchers focused on two different amino acids—alanine and glycine—mixed with an energy molecule called triphosphate. All three molecules are believed to be available on early Earth.
The researchers cooked together the three ingredients over a range of different temperatures and variously acidic conditions. The amino acids only joined together under the hottest and most harsh conditions in the mixtures without triphosphate. With triphosphate present, short chains of alanine and glycine formed at the more moderate conditions.
“Triphosphate facilitates reactions in conditions where most life is found to occur,” Yin said.
The team also found that the amino acids did not randomly combine, but rather linked up into chains with specific sequences depending on temperature and pH levels.
“What we have shown is that you are a product of your environment,” Yin said.
By determining the composition of different amino acids chains with sophisticated analytical chemistry, the researchers were able to identify clues towards the first glimmers of information storage that arose several billion years ago when life began on Earth.
The scientists believed that with increased cooking time, they could view even greater complexity in the mixture. Currently, the reactions only proceeded for one day, but the team plans to add a greater variety of molecules into the mixture to extend this.
The ultimate goal will be to develop mixtures where complicated molecules spontaneously come together from simpler components and create self-driving chemical reactions that interact and feed off each other. This could provide clues to create new drugs or synthesize existing compounds more efficiently.
The study was published in the Origins of Life and Evolution of Biospheres.