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Molecular midwives hold clues to the origin of life

Adding a small molecule, dubbed a "molecular midwife," researchers increased the rate of DNA formation in a chemical reaction 1,000 fold over a similar reaction lacking a midwife. The discovery is an important step in the effort to trace the evolution of life back to the earliest self-replicating molecules. The results are reported in the April 2 edition of the German chemistry journal Angewandte Chemie.

"We are working to uncover how molecules similar to RNA and DNA first appeared on Earth around 4 billion years ago. Our theory is that small, simple molecules acted as templates for the production of the first RNA-like molecules. Many of these small molecules, or molecular midwives, would have worked together to produce RNA by spontaneously mixing and assembling with the chemical building blocks of RNA," said Nicholas Hud, associate professor of chemistry and biochemistry at the Georgia Institute of Technology.

In contemporary life, RNA is present in all cells and is responsible for transmitting genetic information from DNA to proteins. Many scientists believe that RNA, or something similar to RNA, was the first molecule on Earth to self-replicate and begin the process of evolution that led to more advanced forms of life such as human beings.

Hud first proposed the idea of a molecular midwife in a paper published in the Journal of Theoretical Biology in 2000, along with co-author Frank Anet, professor emeritus at UCLA. The problem they said was this. When you throw all the components needed to make RNA into a soup, the individual components do not spontaneously form RNA. But there may have been other molecules present at the dawn of life that would have increased the chances RNA would form. If this were true, then it would provide a missing link in the evolution of life's earliest molecules.

Hud and Anet, along with Georgia Tech students Swapan Jain and Christopher Stahle, tested this idea by using the molecule proflavin to aid the ch
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Contact: David Terraso
david.terraso@icpa.gatech.edu
404-385-2966
Georgia Institute of Technology Research News
31-Mar-2004


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