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Department of Earth Sciences


Did Life Originate on Layered Minerals?

(18 December 2017)

One of the biggest unanswered questions in science is how life first originated. Prof Chris Greenwell, in collaboration with Dr Valentina Erastova and Dr Matteo Degiacomi from Durham’s Chemistry department, and Prof Don Fraser  from the University of Oxford, have just published an article in Nature Communications which sheds light on a potential mechanism leading to the spontaneous formation of proteins, one of life’s fundamental building blocks.

The environment of early Earth, with a high pH and low in carbon dioxide, was very different from today’s. This research looked at the interplay between layered materials and amino acids under these ancient conditions. Results show that amino acids can readily intercalate within layered double hydroxides and, upon successive wetting-drying cycles, polymerise. The process can enable the formation of functional proteins which can also be released into the environment.

This proposed mechanism shows 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 the first proteins on Earth might have also taken place on other rocky planets.

Erastova, V., Degiacomi, M.T., Fraser, D.G., Greenwell, H.C. (2017). Mineral surface control for origin of prebiotic peptides, Nature Communications.