Home Sciences RNA, ‘seed’ of life, arose spontaneously in lava, scientists discover

RNA, ‘seed’ of life, arose spontaneously in lava, scientists discover


Ribonucleic acid (RNA), a DNA analog that was probably the first genetic material for life, forms spontaneously in basaltic lava glass, as scientists have discovered. In this way, one of the ‘seeds’ of life could have formed directly on Earth.

The discovery, with great implications for determining the origin of life on Earth, and perhaps on Mars, has been published this Friday in the journal Astrobiology by scientists from the Foundation for Applied Molecular Evolution.

This type of glass abounded on Earth 4,350 million years ago and it so happens that Similar basalts and with that antiquity also existed on Mars.

“Scientists studying the origins of life have disagreed in recent years,” said study co-author Steven Benner. Due to the complexity of chemical processes, it is not easy to explain how life on Earth actually originated.

However, the new discovery allows for a simpler approach. Led by Elisa Biondi, the study shows that long RNA molecules, 100 to 200 nucleotides long, they form when nucleoside triphosphates do nothing more than seep through basaltic glass.

“Basaltic glass was everywhere on Earth at the time,” said Stephen Mojzsis, an Earth scientist who was also involved in the study. “For several hundred million years after the Moon’s formation, frequent impacts by asteroids, coupled with abundant volcanism on the young planet, formed molten basaltic lava, the source of basaltic glass. The impacts also evaporated water to form dry land, providing aquifers where RNA could have formed,” he added.

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These same impacts also generated nickel, which the team showed provides nucleoside triphosphates from nucleosides and activated phosphate, which are also found in lava glass. Borate (as in borax), also from basalt, controls the formation of these triphosphates.

The same impacts that formed the glass also transiently depleted the atmosphere with its metallic iron and nickel nuclei. RNA bases, whose sequences store genetic information, form in such atmospheres. The team had previously shown that nucleosides they are formed by a simple reaction between ribose phosphate and RNA bases.a simple model

“The beauty of this model is its simplicity. High school students can try it in chemistry class,” said Jan Pacek, who was not involved in this study but is developing an instrument to detect alien genetic polymers on Mars. “Mix the ingredients, wait a few days and detect the RNA,” he said.

He contends that this work completes a pathway that creates RNA from small organic molecules that were almost certainly present on early Earth. A single geological model starts from one and two carbon molecules to give RNA molecules long enough to support Darwinian evolution.

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“Important issues remain to be resolved,” warns Benner. “We still don’t know how all the RNA building blocks came to have the same general shape, a relationship known as homochirality.” Likewise, the links between the nucleotides can be variable in the material synthesized on basaltic glass. The significance of this is not known.

Mars is relevant in this discovery, because the same minerals, glasses and impacts were also present on ancient Mars. However, the planet has not suffered from the continental drift and plate tectonics that buried most of Earth’s rocks for more than 4 billion years. Thus, the key moment rocks remain on the Martian surface. Recent missions have found all the necessary rocks there, including borate.

“If life arose on Earth via this simple pathway, then it probably arose on Mars as well,” Benner said. “This makes it even more important to look for life on Mars as soon as we can.”

Reference Study: doi:10.1126/science.add3257


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