Scientists at the University of York are one step closer to understanding the origin of life after making a breakthrough into how sugar molecules found in DNA are created.
They have recreated a pair of simple sugars – threose and erythrose – in a process which could have occurred before the advent of life.
The research team, led by Dr. Paul Clarke, along with colleagues at the University of Nottingham, have made the first step towards showing how the basic building blocks of life developed.
Every biological molecule has an ability to exist in a left-handed form or right-handed form.
All sugars in biology are made up of the right-handed form of molecules and yet all the amino acids that make up the peptides and proteins are made up of the left-handed form.
The researchers found using simple left-handed amino acids to catalyze the formation of sugars resulted in the production of the predominantly right-handed form of sugars.
Their research, published in Organic & Biomolecular Chemistry, could explain how carbohydrates originated and why the right-handed form dominates in nature.
Dr. Paul Clarke said: “There are a lot of fundamental questions about the origins of life and many people think they are questions about biology.
“But for life to have evolved, you have to have a moment when non-living things become living – everything up to that point is chemistry.
“We are trying to understand the chemical origins of life.
“One of the interesting questions is where carbohydrates come from because they are the building blocks of DNA and RNA.
“What we have achieved is the first step on that pathway to show how simple sugars – threose and erythrose – originated.
“We generated these sugars from a very simple set of materials that most scientists believe were around at the time that life began.”
The research has echoes of the landmark Miller-Urey study in 1952, which simulated hypothetical conditions that may have been present on early Earth.
The study findings showed how the building blocks of life can form from simple chemical reactions – for example, electrical activity like that associated with lightning can prompt the formation of amino acids.