A vial containing ribose that turned brown after 15 minutes. A second vial contains ribose that survived, for over two months, because of the presence of colemanite. A sample of the mineral colemanite from Death Valley is in the background
Credit: Steven Benner, U of Florida
Researchers at the University of Florida say they have shown that minerals were key to some of the initial processes that formed life on Earth.
Specifically, a borax-containing mineral known as colemanite helps convert organic molecules found in interstellar dust clouds into a sugar, known as ribose, central to the genetic material called RNA. This announcement provides a key step toward solving the 3-billion-year-old mystery of how life on Earth began. The findings will appear in Friday’s issue of the journal Science. Steven Benner, Alonso Ricardo, Matthew Carrigan and Alison Olcott built on a famous experiment done 50 years earlier by Stanley Miller that is found in many textbooks. In 1953, Miller showed that electric sparks in a primitive atmosphere made amino acids, the building blocks of proteins.
Miller’s experiment failed to identify sugars that were needed for genetic material, however. "The sugar ribose can be formed from interstellar precursors under prebiotic conditions," said Benner, who led the research funded by NASA, the National Science Foundation and The Agouron Institute in Pasadena, Calif. "But ribose is too unstable to survive under Miller’s conditions." Ribose, like most sugars, turns into tar if not handled carefully. "It is like baking a cake too long," said Benner, a UF distinguished professor of chemistry and anatomy and cell biology. In 1995, Miller gave up trying to make ribose prebiotically, writing: "The first genetic material could not have contained ribose or other sugars because of their instability."
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