Between life and chemistry

The RNA world hypothesis has been around for quite a long time as an origin of life theory (alongside others such as the iron-sulfur world and the newer aromatic world theories). Actually, the concept dates back as far as 1963. The idea is, essentially, that RNA can act as an enzyme, store information, and self-replicate. As such, many have favoured the idea that strands of RNA might have been evolving chemically long before cellular life developed.

Well, a research group at the Scripps Research Institute have hacked some RNA, creating a kind of molecular ‘ecosystem’. It’s not actually a living system, but a collection of molecules which evolve and compete the way living organisms do.

The team have been tinkering with these molecules for the past 8 years, creating pairs which require each others’ help to reproduce. Effectively, sexual reproduction in molecular form. As a result, once these molecules were in solution, some of them gave rise to random mutations. Just as in living ecosystems, most mutations rapidly died out, but a select few proved to be beneficial. So beneficial, in fact, that after a mere 77 replications all the original molecules were extinct. A variety of forms came into existence with 3 highly successful molecules dominating the population.

Chemistry acting like biology. Fascinating. Simply fascinating.

The big question though is, could any other molecules could act this way? RNA is, after all, fairly advanced as molecules go. At what stage in a prebiotic system does chemistry start to act in a lifelike way?

The journal paper was published recently in Science, if you happen to have a subscription (or a nearby library).
Tip of the hat to ranka for posting that link!

About Invader Xan

Molecular astrophysicist, usually found writing frenziedly, staring at the sky, or drinking mojitos.
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8 Responses to Between life and chemistry

  1. invaderxan says:

    Scouting about, I’ve seen menthol used with acidic fruit flavours like lemon or pineapple. I’m thinking dessert would be best. Like a menthol and gree tea sorbet… Or perhaps more savoury. Maybe ultracold gazpacho soup!
    Oh, you’ve gone and piqued my interest now. I’m going to have to look into this… :)

  2. That’s a very good question..and I am not sure. Sounds like there will be a bit of a mint taste left, so I need to work around that.
    I think I would like to find something unexpected. I like hte idea of balancing something that should be hot against active trpm8 receptor activation.
    It will be fun!

  3. invaderxan says:

    Pity… I’m sure I’ll stumble across it at some point. It’s a very interesting though…

  4. helen99 says:

    Unfortunately not – I searched yesterday but couldn’t find anything about it. It had to do with simple organisms using chemical reaction relays to perform their processes. Likewise, nanomachines also use chemical reaction relays to do a specific job. This of course assumes that I’m remembering correctly, since I have no article to back this up.

  5. invaderxan says:

    Ooo… Cool!
    I’ve never played with pure menthol, no. Perhaps I should look into it. ;)
    What’re you planning, out of interest?

  6. I’m thinking about playing with menthol in some molecular gastronomy stuff. Do you have any experience?

  7. invaderxan says:

    I don’t suppose you remember where you saw that article, do you?
    It sounds interesting… :)

  8. helen99 says:

    I remember seeing an article describing how certain non-living nanomachines operate similarly to archaea and mitochondria. The fine line between living and not begins to blur even more.

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