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Durham University

Department of Chemistry

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Origin of protein formation

(15 December 2017)

One of the biggest unanswered questions in science is how life first originated. Dr Valentina Erastova and Dr Matteo Degiacomi from our department, in collaboration with Earth Sciences departments in Durham and Oxford Universities, published an article in Nature Communications shedding light on a possible mechanism leading to the spontaneous formation of proteins, one of life’s fundamental building blocks.

The environment of early Earth, featuring high pH and low carbon dioxide, was much different from today. This research focuses on the interplay between layered materials and amino acids under these ancient conditions. Results show that amino acids would readily intercalate within layered double hydroxides and, upon successive wetting-drying cycles, polymerise. This process would not only enable the formation of proteins being sufficiently long to be functional, but also their release into the environment.

This proposed mechanism features a remarkable similarity with how the ribosome, the biological protein assembly machinery, performs its task. Furthermore, since both layered materials and amino acids can be found on other celestial bodies, the same mechanism promoting the formation of first proteins on Earth may have also taken place on other rocky planets.