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Publication Title | Peptide and RNA contributions to iron–sulphur chemical gardens as life’s first inorganic compartments, catalysts, capacitors

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Phil. Trans. R. Soc. A (2012) 370, 3007–3022 doi:10.1098/rsta.2011.0211

Peptide and RNA contributions to iron–sulphur chemical gardens as life’s first inorganic compartments, catalysts, capacitors

and condensers

BY SHAWN E. MCGLYNN1,2,†, ISIK KANIK1 AND MICHAEL J. RUSSELL1,*

1Planetary Science Section 3220, MS:183-301, Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California Institute of Technology, 4800 Oak Grove Drive, Pasadena, CA 91109-8099, USA

2Astrobiology Biogeocatalysis Research Center and Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, Montana State University, Bozeman, MT 59715, USA

Hydrothermal chimneys and compartments comprising transition metal sulphides and associated minerals have been proposed as likely locations for the beginnings of life. In laboratory simulations of off-axis alkaline springs, it is shown that the interaction of a simulated alkaline sulphide-bearing submarine vent solution with a primeval anoxic iron-bearing ocean leads to the formation of chimney structures reminiscent of chemical gardens. These chimneys display periodicity in their deposition and exhibit diverse morphologies and mineralogies, affording the possibilities of catalysis and molecular sequestration. The addition of peptides and RNA to the alkaline solution modifies the elemental stoichiometry of the chimneys—perhaps indicating the very initial stage of the organic takeover on the way to living cells by charged organic polymers potentially synthesized in this same environment.

Keywords: chemical gardens; geo-mimicry; origin of life; periodicity; transition metal catalysis; hydrothermal vents

1. Introduction

Life is a processor of energy and materials made available through convective forces on our planet, augmented by the sunshine at the surface. It maintains itself through homeostasis (i.e. through chemiosmosis and the proton motive force), by ‘drinking orderliness from a suitable environment’, by continual reference to genetic information and by exploratory channelling [1–5]. Organisms alive today can be thought of as decorating unbroken mutable threads of the genetic code stretching back, and tied, to the last universal common ancestor. But

*Author for correspondence (mrussell@jpl.nasa.gov).

† Present address: Division of Geological and Planetary Sciences, California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, CA 91125, USA.

One contribution of 14 to a Theme Issue ‘Beyond crystals: the dialectic of materials and information’.

3007 This journal is © 2012 The Royal Society

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