Unearthing the Birth of Life – Unraveling the Formation of Primordial Proteins on Prebiotic Earth

by Klaus Müller
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Sugar-Protein Interactions

A team of researchers from Tohoku University has unearthed intriguing insights about the conditions that might have favored protein formation on prebiotic Earth. Contrary to popular beliefs, their study suggests that boric acid facilitates the generation of extended peptides in both neutral and acidic settings rather than the previously believed alkaline ones. This assertion is further backed by the discovery of plentiful boron-infused minerals in primeval earth rocks, signifying boron-rich and neutral areas as promising candidates for protein creation on prebiotic Earth.

Understanding how the first catalytic organic polymers materialized on prebiotic Earth will shed light on life’s origin.

The researchers at Tohoku University have presented a possible scenario for the genesis of these organic polymers. Their findings hinge on the evaporation of amino acid solutions laced with boric acid, where they observed that boric acid enhances polypeptide formation under both neutral and acidic circumstances. The longest peptides produced in the experiments were glycine polypeptides, 39 monomers long, synthesized under a neutral condition.

Historically, studies proposed that protein synthesis occurred in highly alkaline evaporative environments, giving birth to glycine peptides up to 20 monomers long. Neutral conditions were typically considered sub-optimal for peptide synthesis.

Caption: A boron-rich ancient coastal region could potentially expedite the polymerization of amino acids. Image credit: Yoshihiro Furukawa

Boron-infused minerals were found in large quantities in some of the oldest sedimentary rocks on Earth, dating back 3.8 billion years. This discovery points to the likelihood that boric acid-rich coastal areas in small, ancient continents and islands catalyzed the assembly of amino acids into polypeptides and early proteins.

“The fact that polypeptides could form in neutral settings holds significant implications for the chemical evolution underlying life’s origin,” explains Yoshihiro Furukawa, an associate professor at Tohoku University and the lead author of the study.

Despite RNAs being fairly stable under neutral conditions, they exhibit extreme instability in alkaline settings. Boron has been found to aid various stages of ribonucleotide synthesis outside of biological systems.

“Boron-rich, neutral, evaporative environments are the perfect breeding grounds for the creation and interactions of these vital polymers on prebiotic Earth,” adds Furukawa.

The research team is now working to identify which amino acids were included in the proto-peptides in this particular environment.

Source: “Boron-assisted abiotic polypeptide synthesis” by Yuki Sumie, Keiichiro Sato, Takeshi Kakegawa, and Yoshihiro Furukawa, published on 11 May 2023, in Communications Chemistry.
DOI: 10.1038/s42004-023-00885-7

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about Primordial Protein Formation

What did the researchers at Tohoku University discover about primordial protein formation on prebiotic Earth?

The researchers at Tohoku University discovered that boric acid plays a significant role in catalyzing the formation of lengthy peptides under both neutral and acidic conditions, challenging the previous belief that alkaline conditions were ideal. This discovery suggests that boron-rich, neutral environments may have been favorable for protein synthesis on prebiotic Earth.

How did the researchers conduct their study?

To make their discovery, the researchers evaporated solutions of amino acids containing boric acid. They found that boric acid fostered the creation of polypeptides in neutral and acidic environments. The longest peptides formed in their experiments were 39 monomer-long glycine polypeptides under neutral conditions.

What was previously believed about protein synthesis on prebiotic Earth?

Previous studies suggested that highly alkaline evaporative environments were the favorable settings for ancient protein synthesis. It was thought that neutral conditions were the least conducive to peptide synthesis.

How do boron-containing minerals support the potential of neutral environments for protein synthesis?

Abundant boron-containing minerals have been discovered in ancient sedimentary-origin rocks, dating back 3.8 billion years. These findings indicate that coastal areas of ancient small continents and islands, rich in boric acid, could have facilitated the spontaneous assembly of amino acids, leading to the formation of polypeptides and proto-proteins.

What is the significance of polypeptide formation in neutral environments?

The formation of polypeptides in neutral environments holds important implications for the chemical evolution underlying the origin of life. While RNAs are stable under neutral conditions but unstable under alkaline conditions, boron’s role in abiotic ribonucleotide synthesis suggests that boron-rich, neutral, evaporative environments provided an ideal environment for the formation and interaction of essential polymers on prebiotic Earth.

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