The origin of life has been a huge question since the subject got smart enough to ask it. We've traced the origin of cells through DNA, realized that RNA is a realizable originator, traced the nucleotides that put that vast chemical together, and spent decades working out how those chemical combinations could have occurred. [Unless you ignore enough scientists to form a nation and decide instead we were built by a bored voyeur.] Now, an English scientist may have solved the critical conundrum of the first step.
In case we foxed you in the first paragraph, it's true that RNA is thought to be the real original repository of genetic information. It's de-denoted buddy DNA might get all the press, but it's now thought that this stabler variant simply took over the records and filing duties when it turned up, leaving RNA to run around and get things done. In the old days the single-stranded RNA did the lot.
Scientists know what had to come before RNA, a set of subunits called nucleotides which were easily assembled from pre-life parts in the vast chemical cocktail shaker that was early Earth - they just couldn't explain how these nucleotides first came together to form RNA. Now, Dr Sutherland and colleagues of the University of Manchester have suggested a solution for the only jigsaw that ever mattered. It took ten years.
They started with the same chemicals available on our prebiotic-era planet and started smashing them together until they got the RNA combination - and if a single lab can make it in a decade, you can bet an en entire world with millions of years made it eventually. These reactions aren't based on cunning design by intelligent observers, simply on finding what's energetically possible - with vats the size of oceans, random chance will eventually ram every option together. They kept combining until they worked out how we all came to be, and by their sheer existence they say "See, people, THIS is what you do with years of dedication. Not a level 80 craftsman."
The key points turned out to be a novel half-sugar-half-base combination, a little ultraviolet light, and some cyano-acetlyne (which has been detected as far afield as Titan.) This starting point is huge news in the "We're interested in life" community, providing a key clue in thousands of other literally vital problems.
(Meanwhile, the Texas school board just took a vote on the age of the Earth.)
By Luke McKinney.
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