Were ‘foldamers’ the start of life on Earth?

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Researchers have developed a computational model that may explain how proteins, DNA, and RNA arose from simpler chemicals when life on Earth emerged around 4 billion years ago.

The researchers say their model explains how certain molecules fold and bind together to grow longer and more complex, leading from simple chemicals to primitive biological molecules.

Previously scientists learned that the early Earth likely contained the basic chemical building blocks and sustained spontaneous chemical reactions that could string together short chains of chemical units. But it has remained a mystery what actions could then prompt short chemical polymer chains to develop into much longer chains that can encode useful protein information. The new computational model may help explain that gap in the evolution of chemistry into biology.

“We created a computational model that illustrates a fold-and-catalyze mechanism that amplifies polymer sequences and leads to runaway improvements in the polymers,” says Ken Dill, lead author, professor, and director of Stony Brook University’s Laufer Center for Physical and Quantitative Biology.

“The theoretical study helps to understand a missing link in the evolution of chemistry into biology and how a population of molecular building blocks could, over time, result in the emergence of catalytic sequences essential to biological life.”

For the paper, the researchers used computer simulations to study how random sequences of water-loving, or polar, and water-averse, or hydrophobic, polymers fold and bind together.

They found these random sequence chains of both types of polymers can collapse and fold into specific compact conformations that expose hydrophobic surfaces, thus serving as catalysts for elongating other polymers. These particular polymer chains, referred to as “foldamer” catalysts, can work together in pairs to grow longer and develop more informational sequences.

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This process, according to the authors, provides a basis to explain how random chemical processes could have resulted in protein-like precursors to biological life. It gives a testable hypothesis about early prebiotic polymers and their evolution.

“By showing how prebiotic polymers could have become informational ‘foldamers,’ we hope to have revealed a key step to understanding just how life started to form on earth billions of years ago,” explains Dill.

The findings appear in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Additional coauthors of the paper are from Stony Brook University and the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in Berkeley, California.

Partial support for the work came from the National Science Foundation.

Source: Stony Brook University