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May 13 2009

So now we know RNA nucleotides can be spontaneously formed!

Good news everyone! </farnsworth>

For the last 20 years, scientists have been trying to puzzle out whether or not it was even possible for RNA to spontaneously self-arrange, thus sparking the beginnings of the chain reaction we call “life”, and have come up empty. One group of scientists decided to take every molecule involved in the creation of RNA nucleotydes and arrange them in different orders and expose them to different catalysts, and have just stumbled upon a way for ribocytidine phosphate to form naturally out of constituent chemicals, chemicals that we already know can be synthesized naturally in the pre-biotic environment Earth once had.

The building blocks of RNA, known as nucleotides, each consist of a chemical base, a sugar molecule called ribose and a phosphate group. Chemists quickly found plausible natural ways for each of these constituents to form from natural chemicals. But there was no natural way for them all to join together.

[...] Dr. Sutherland and his colleagues Matthew W. Powner and BĂ©atrice Gerland report that they have taken the same starting chemicals used by others but have caused them to react in a different order and in different combinations than in previous experiments. they discovered their recipe, which is far from intuitive, after 10 years of working through every possible combination of starting chemicals.

Instead of making the starting chemicals form a sugar and a base, they mixed them in a different order, in which the chemicals naturally formed a compound that is half-sugar and half-base. When another half-sugar and half-base are added, the RNA nucleotide called ribocytidine phosphate emerges.

There’s no telling whether or not this is how those bits of pre-life actually arranged themselves to kick this whole life thing off, but the mere fact that it’s possible, suggests that, in the vast amount of time since the formation of the Earth and the vast amount of time during which the planet’s environment contained the chemicals necessary to arrange life in this manner, it may have been inevitable. Since we keep finding ways that certain links in the proposed chain of abiogenesis events *could* happen, and since we know that it *did* happen, then we know abiogenesis from no initial guiding force or intelligent spark is itself, as a theory, plausible! The chemicals necessary for life can be created and seeded onto planets from supernovas elsewhere in the galaxy, then life can, and under the right circumstances, *will* emerge from those seeds.

This heartens me, and it probably gives me the same sense of rapture that religious folks get by looking at the vastness of the universe and saying “goddidit”. It means that, as Carl Sagan once said, we are indeed “star stuff” — and we are indeed the universe’s way of knowing itself.

What I’d love to see turn up is new ways to arrange or spontaneously generate life that *didn’t* happen here, suggesting that there may be more than one self-sustaining chemical chain reaction that we could call “life” in this universe, possibly playing by vastly different rules and with vastly different constituent components (e.g., silicon!). Now that would be super-cool.

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