Forum for Science, Industry and Business

Sponsored by:     3M 
Search our Site:

 

UF study suggests life on Earth sprang from borax minerals

09.01.2004


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."



Benner, who also is a member of NASA’s Astrobiology Institute, did the first experiments as an instructor at an international geobiology course last summer funded by the Agouron Institute and held at the University of Southern California Wrigley Institute for Environmental Studies. "We asked two questions. First, what simple organic molecules might have been present on early Earth as starting materials to form ribose? Then, what might have been present on early Earth to capture ribose and keep it from burning up like overcooked cake?" Benner said.

To identify simple organic molecules that might be the starting materials, Benner turned to compounds known to exist in interstellar dust, such as formaldehyde, used to preserve tissue. "Formaldehyde may not seem to be a good starting point for the life that we know," he said. "But it is simple. With only one carbon atom, one oxygen atom and two hydrogen atoms, there is a lot of formaldehyde to work with in the cosmos."

Benner and his team showed that formaldehyde, with other interstellar compounds, could form ribose and other sugars when treated in the presence of base materials such as lime, a material used to adjust the pH level of lawns, among other things. Lime was effective, but the ribose decomposed soon after it was formed.

Recognizing that ribose had a particular chemical structure that allowed it to bind to minerals containing the element boron, they turned to another substance called colemanite. "Colemanite is a mineral containing borate found in Death Valley," he said. "Without it, ribose turns into a brown tar. With it, ribose and other sugars emerge as clean products." Benner then showed similar reactions with other borate minerals, including ulexite and kernite, which is more commonly known as borax.

Benner and his team are the first researchers to succeed in making significant amounts of ribose under these early conditions.

Joseph Piccirilli, a biological chemist at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and the University of Chicago, said Benner’s work "has simplicity and brilliance."

"Organic chemists have long known that borate complexes with compounds like ribose," Piccirilli said, "and prebiotic scientists have long believed that minerals on the early Earth played an important role in the origin of life." Until now, "no one has put the two ideas together," he said.

"We are not claiming that this is how life started," Benner stressed. "We are saying that we have demonstrated a recipe to make a key part of life without any biochemical machinery. The more recipes of this type that can be found, the more clues we have about how life could have actually gotten started on the primitive Earth."

While best classified as basic science, the work has practical biological and medical value. "Curiously, thinking about how life originated and what form it might take on other planets helps us design new tools for disease diagnostics and therapy," Benner said. Diagnostic tools enabled by Benner’s work seeking alternative life forms are used today in the clinic to monitor the load of the viruses that cause AIDS and hepatitis C.

The work also complements other research Benner is conducting that focuses on ancient forms of life on Earth. In a September report in Nature, Benner and his collaborators deduced the structure of a protein found in a bacterium that lived several billion years ago and resurrected the ancient protein. By studying it in the laboratory, the group inferred the ancient bacteria lived in a hot spring at about 150 degrees Fahrenheit.

With the prebiotic experiments, Benner said, "we are working forward in time, from the origin of the planet to the first life. With experiments with ancient proteins, we work backwards in time, from the modern world to the most primitive of bacteria." The group’s goal, he said, is to have the two meet in the middle.


Additional Contacts:
UF: Paula Rausch, 352-392-0186
NASA:Donald Savage, 202-358-1547
Source: Steven Benner, 352-219-3570 (cell), 352-392-7773, benner@chem.ufl.edu

Steven Benner | EurekAlert!
Further information:
http://www.ufl.edu/

More articles from Life Sciences:

nachricht Desert ants cannot be fooled
23.11.2017 | Max-Planck-Institut für chemische Ökologie

nachricht Bacteria as pacemaker for the intestine
22.11.2017 | Christian-Albrechts-Universität zu Kiel

All articles from Life Sciences >>>

The most recent press releases about innovation >>>

Die letzten 5 Focus-News des innovations-reports im Überblick:

Im Focus: Frictional Heat Powers Hydrothermal Activity on Enceladus

Computer simulation shows how the icy moon heats water in a porous rock core

Heat from the friction of rocks caused by tidal forces could be the “engine” for the hydrothermal activity on Saturn's moon Enceladus. This presupposes that...

Im Focus: Nanoparticles help with malaria diagnosis – new rapid test in development

The WHO reports an estimated 429,000 malaria deaths each year. The disease mostly affects tropical and subtropical regions and in particular the African continent. The Fraunhofer Institute for Silicate Research ISC teamed up with the Fraunhofer Institute for Molecular Biology and Applied Ecology IME and the Institute of Tropical Medicine at the University of Tübingen for a new test method to detect malaria parasites in blood. The idea of the research project “NanoFRET” is to develop a highly sensitive and reliable rapid diagnostic test so that patient treatment can begin as early as possible.

Malaria is caused by parasites transmitted by mosquito bite. The most dangerous form of malaria is malaria tropica. Left untreated, it is fatal in most cases....

Im Focus: A “cosmic snake” reveals the structure of remote galaxies

The formation of stars in distant galaxies is still largely unexplored. For the first time, astron-omers at the University of Geneva have now been able to closely observe a star system six billion light-years away. In doing so, they are confirming earlier simulations made by the University of Zurich. One special effect is made possible by the multiple reflections of images that run through the cosmos like a snake.

Today, astronomers have a pretty accurate idea of how stars were formed in the recent cosmic past. But do these laws also apply to older galaxies? For around a...

Im Focus: Visual intelligence is not the same as IQ

Just because someone is smart and well-motivated doesn't mean he or she can learn the visual skills needed to excel at tasks like matching fingerprints, interpreting medical X-rays, keeping track of aircraft on radar displays or forensic face matching.

That is the implication of a new study which shows for the first time that there is a broad range of differences in people's visual ability and that these...

Im Focus: Novel Nano-CT device creates high-resolution 3D-X-rays of tiny velvet worm legs

Computer Tomography (CT) is a standard procedure in hospitals, but so far, the technology has not been suitable for imaging extremely small objects. In PNAS, a team from the Technical University of Munich (TUM) describes a Nano-CT device that creates three-dimensional x-ray images at resolutions up to 100 nanometers. The first test application: Together with colleagues from the University of Kassel and Helmholtz-Zentrum Geesthacht the researchers analyzed the locomotory system of a velvet worm.

During a CT analysis, the object under investigation is x-rayed and a detector measures the respective amount of radiation absorbed from various angles....

All Focus news of the innovation-report >>>

Anzeige

Anzeige

Event News

Ecology Across Borders: International conference brings together 1,500 ecologists

15.11.2017 | Event News

Road into laboratory: Users discuss biaxial fatigue-testing for car and truck wheel

15.11.2017 | Event News

#Berlin5GWeek: The right network for Industry 4.0

30.10.2017 | Event News

 
Latest News

Water cooling for the Earth's crust

23.11.2017 | Earth Sciences

Nano-watch has steady hands

23.11.2017 | Physics and Astronomy

Batteries with better performance and improved safety

23.11.2017 | Power and Electrical Engineering

VideoLinks
B2B-VideoLinks
More VideoLinks >>>