In DepthORIGIN OF LIFE

From hell on Earth, life's building blocks

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Science  12 Dec 2014:
Vol. 346, Issue 6215, pp. 1279
DOI: 10.1126/science.346.6215.1279

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Summary

Using a high-powered laser to replicate the hellish conditions produced when an asteroid or comet slams into Earth, researchers have created some key building blocks of life. The target: a solution of formamide, a minimalist chemical produced when hydrogen cyanide reacts with water. The results, described this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences: a variety of substances, including adenine, guanine, cytosine, and uracil, all four information-bearing organic compounds in RNA, which many scientists believe to have been the first molecule to encode genetic information. Extraterrestrial impacts were particularly common during a period aptly dubbed the Late Heavy Bombardment, which began about 4 billion years ago and lasted about 150 million years, the researchers note. The new findings may help scientists better ascertain where and how life might have originated.

  • * Sid Perkins is a writer based in Crossville, Tennessee.