Prebiotic synthesis of cysteine peptides that catalyze peptide ligation in neutral water

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Science  13 Nov 2020:
Vol. 370, Issue 6518, pp. 865-869
DOI: 10.1126/science.abd5680

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Cysteine as peptide precursor and catalyst

Among amino acids, cysteine is highly reactive as a nucleophile, metal ligand, and participant in redox and radical reactions. These properties make cysteine attractive as a component of prebiotic chemistry, but traditional Strecker synthesis of α-aminonitriles, which can serve as peptide precursors, cannot produce free cysteine. Foden et al. found that a simple acylation of the free amine prevented degradation of cysteine nitrile and enabled synthesis of this cysteine precursor from acetyl dehydroalanine nitrile and a sulfide donor (see the Perspective by Muchowska and Moran). When combined with other proteinogenic α-aminonitriles, acetylcysteine or derivative thiols catalyzed efficient peptide ligation in water. These results highlight how prebiotic synthesis of precursors can also generate function by creating a catalyst for polymerization.

Science, this issue p. 865; see also p. 767


Peptide biosynthesis is performed by ribosomes and several other classes of enzymes, but a simple chemical synthesis may have created the first peptides at the origins of life. α-Aminonitriles—prebiotic α–amino acid precursors—are generally produced by Strecker reactions. However, cysteine’s aminothiol is incompatible with nitriles. Consequently, cysteine nitrile is not stable, and cysteine has been proposed to be a product of evolution, not prebiotic chemistry. We now report a high-yielding, prebiotic synthesis of cysteine peptides. Our biomimetic pathway converts serine to cysteine by nitrile-activated dehydroalanine synthesis. We also demonstrate that N-acylcysteines catalyze peptide ligation, directly coupling kinetically stable—but energy-rich—α-amidonitriles to proteinogenic amines. This rare example of selective and efficient organocatalysis in water implicates cysteine as both catalyst and precursor in prebiotic peptide synthesis.

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