For decades, chemists and biologists have puzzled over the processes that gave rise to organic molecules around 4 billion years ago. After all, organic molecules are the building blocks of all living things. Now, in a quest to unlock the secrets of life’s building blocks, a team of chemists from Purdue University, Indiana, has developed a method to obtain peptides, which are groups of amino acids that are key in the formation of proteins and, later, life.
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Experts have good reason to believe that life began to develop in the oceans thanks to the presence of organic compounds, protection from atmospheric hostility, and warm temperatures. However, scientists understand that to form proteins, it is necessary to first form peptides, which are obtained from the assembly of amino acids. This binding process requires the loss of an H2O molecule, which does not appear to be possible if the molecule is in the sea.
In the study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the authors wrote: “The formation of amide bonds, the essential condensation reaction underlying peptide synthesis, is hampered in aqueous systems by the thermodynamic constraints associated with dehydration. This represents a key difficulty for the widely held view that the prebiotic chemical evolution that led to the formation of the first biomolecules occurred in an ocean environment.”
This apparent contradiction led the researchers to conclude that environments with less humidity, such as ocean shores or dew drops, were propitious scenarios for the formation of structures that would later give rise to life.
The researchers discovered that water droplets are the ideal medium for the reaction to occur and created a device that synthesizes these compounds faster than previous methods, according to a press release.
This study has broader implications than you might think. Understanding the primordial mechanism that gives rise to the assembly of life allows scientists to replicate it and use it to synthesize compounds that may be required but scarce, enhancing the manufacture of medicines, lowering their cost, and increasing their availability.
“This is the first demonstration that primordial molecules, simple amino acids, spontaneously form peptides, the building blocks of life, in droplets of pure water,” said Henry Bohn Hass, Professor of Chemistry at Purdue University, in a press release. “This is a dramatic discovery.”
Using droplet chemistry, the researchers were able to build an apparatus, which is now being used to accelerate the formulation of new chemicals and potential new drugs. With more research, synthetic chemists could possibly speed up the reactions required for the discovery and development of new drugs and disease treatments.