Peptides and proteins are strings of amino acid building blocks, and they are one of the most important classes of biological molecules found in living things today. Fifty years of chemical research on the origins of life has shown that amino acids could have formed spontaneously on the early Earth environment or could have been introduced onto the early Earth from meteorites.
"There are lots of ways to make amino acids," says Professor M. Reza Ghadiri, Ph.D., who is a member of The Skaggs Institute for Chemical Biology at Scripps Research. "But the question is, how do you couple them together?"
Ghadiri and Luke Leman, who is a member of the Kellogg School of Science and Technology at Scripps Research, worked out one possible solution with Leslie Orgel of the Salk Institute. In the latest issue of the journal Science, Leman, Ghadiri, and Orgel suggest that the missing link is a chemical component of volcanic gas known as carbonyl sulfide.
Carbonyl sulfide is present in volcanic gasses and deep sea vent emissions today, and since these geological phenomena were prominent features on the early Earth, it is reasonable to assume that the gas was present.
In their report, the scientists demonstrate that the gas can bring about a vigorous chemical reaction that forms peptides under mild aqueous conditions. Within a few minutes of introducing the gas to a reaction vessel containing amino acids, they observed high yields of di-, tri-, and tetra-peptides. They carried out the reaction in the presence of air, without air, and with and without other ingredients like metal ions, and they found peptides formed readily under all these conditions.