The building blocks of a right life may have had a rough start

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Mechanism of rotation-selective crystallization due to CISS effect and experimental setup. (a) As particles approach a surface, they transiently acquire an induced charge polarization. Due to the CISS effect, the trans charge polarization of a chiral molecule is accompanied by the spin polarization. The spin state associated with the charge electrodes is determined by the use of a chiral molecule. Since the magnetic surface itself is rotationally polarized, it favors a kinetic (similar to a seed crystal) view in which the transient spin state leads to a low-energy spin exchange reaction. The lower energy overlap with the magnetic surface is shell-like (red, ↑ ↓) and the higher energy overlap is treble-like (blue, ↑↑). The energy difference between these two configurations is above room temperature, kBT; Therefore, the effect is very strongly manifested. b Schematic of the setup used in the crystallization experiments and a sample microscope image of RAO crystals on a magnetite surface from a direct crystallization experiment. The image shows the surface of magnetite as a black background and the needle-shaped agglomerate crystals of RAO formed on the surface, as well as the randomly arranged double-needled crystals of D- and L-RAO, and racemic RAO in the form of a flaky powder suspended in the water column above the surface. credit: Science advances (2023). DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.adg8274

The Harvard-led research may have solved the mystery of how life became molecularly right. In the paper, “Origin of biological homology by crystallization of precursor RNA on a magnetic surface,” published in Science advancesresearchers explain how it can all start with the right kind of rock.

Particles can be left-handed, right-handed, or both. RNA and the polysaccharides that make up DNA are right-handed molecules. No one knows why or if there is a reason behind the coincidence that life started right.

By analogy, human hands can be left or right, which are mirror images of each other, meaning they cannot be superimposed without one facing the wrong way. Molecules can have similar structural symmetry.

In the same way that right-handed people have difficulty using left-handed scissors, or left-handed guitar players need to reverse strings and play the instrument in reverse, molecules don’t interact the same way when you’re left or right-handed. Once started, it makes sense that the building blocks of life would continue in the same way.

One interesting idea is that left-handed cosmic rays destroyed left-handed DNA precursors just as life began on Earth.

Ribo-aminooxazoline (RAO) is an important protRNA of two RNA nucleotides, cytosine and uracil. RAO also happens to form a crystal structure that can be either right handed or left handed which once a crystal starts forming, right or left handed, it only bonds to other molecules of the same hand.

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By placing RAO on magnetite (Fe3a4), researchers can achieve 100% crystallization of RAO, either left or right, depending on the spin exchange interaction and the degree of spin alignment (magnetization) on the active surface.

Magnetite, the most abundant naturally occurring magnetic mineral on Earth, would have had plenty of opportunities to interact with RAO in primordial times. However, the researchers say the impact is not likely to occur in contact with a particle solution such as clay, but rather on the surfaces of sedimentary rocks.

Even with the current results potentially unlocking two of the four RNA nucleotide components, two more are still missing. So far, the origin story finds that common ingredients that occur naturally at room temperatures can start the process. If the following two were found to have similar requirements, it would indicate that life on any Earth-like planet in the universe could begin just as easily.

more information:
S. Furkan Ozturk et al., The origin of biological homology by crystallization of precursor RNA on a magnetic surface, Science advances (2023). DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.adg8274

S. Furkan Ozturk et al., Chiral-induced magnetization of magnetite by precursor RNA, arXiv (2023). doi: 10.48550/arxiv.2304.09095

Journal information:
Science advances


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