New Twist in Life’s Start Could Aid Efforts to Make It from Scratch
For 30 years, Gerald Joyce has been trying to create life. As a student in the 1980s, he studied how the first RNA molecules, chemical cousins to DNA that can both store and transmit genetic information, might have assembled themselves out of simpler units, a process that many scientists believe led to the first life.
Unfortunately, he had a problem. At a chemical level, a deep bias permeates all of biology. The molecules that make up DNA and other nucleic acids such as RNA have an inherent “handedness.” These molecules can exist in two mirror image forms, but only the right-handed version is found in living organisms.
Handedness serves an essential function in living beings; many of the chemical reactions that drive our cells only work with molecules of the correct handedness. But the pre-biological building blocks of life didn’t exhibit such an overwhelming bias. Some were left-handed and some right. So how did right-handed RNA emerge from a mix of molecules?
Joyce was able to build RNA out of right-handed building blocks, as others had done before him. But when he added in left-handed molecules, mimicking the conditions on the early Earth, everything came to a halt. “Our paper said if you have [both] forms in the same place at the same time, you can’t even get started,” Joyce said.
His findings, published in Nature in 1984, suggested that in order for life to emerge, something first had to crack the symmetry between left-handed and right-handed molecules, an event biochemists call “breaking the mirror.” Since then, scientists have largely focused their search for the origin of life’s handedness in the prebiotic worlds of physics and chemistry, not biology.
Three decades later, Joyce’s latest research has shown that perhaps life came first after all. Joyce, now at the Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, Calif., and Jonathan Sczepanski, a postdoctoral researcher, created an RNA enzyme, a substance that copies RNA, that can function in a soup of left- and right-handed building blocks, providing a potential mechanism for how some of the first biological molecules might have evolved in a symmetrical world.
The new experiment, published in the November 20 issue of Nature, is reinvigorating the discussion over how life first arose. “They have really opened up a new realm of possible roads,” said Niles Lehman, a biochemist at Portland State University in Oregon who wasn’t involved in the study.