Formamide and the origin of life.

Abstract : The complexity of life boils down to the definition: "self-sustained chemical system capable of undergoing Darwinian evolution" (Joyce, 1994) [1]. The term "self-sustained" implies a set of chemical reactions capable of harnessing energy from the environment, using it to carry out programmed anabolic and catabolic functions. We briefly present our opinion on the general validity of this definition. Running anabolic and catabolic functions entails complex chemical information whose stability, reproducibility and evolution constitute the core of what is dubbed genetics. Life as-we-know-it is made of the intimate interaction of metabolism and genetics, both built around the chemistry of the most common elements of the Universe (hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, carbon). Other elements like phosphorus and sulphur play important but ancillary and potentially replaceable roles. The reproducible interaction of metabolic and genetic cycles results in the hypercycles of organization and de-organization of chemical information that we consider living entities. In order to approach the problem of the origin of life it is therefore reasonable to start from the assumption that both metabolism and genetics had a common origin, shared a common chemical frame, were embedded in physical-chemical conditions favourable for the onset of both. The most abundant three-atoms organic compound in interstellar environment is hydrogen cyanide HCN, the most abundant three-atoms inorganic compound is water H(2)O. The combination of the two results in the formation of formamide H(2)NCOH. We have explored the chemistry of formamide in conditions compatible with the synthesis and the stability of compounds of potential pre-genetic and pre-metabolic interest. We discuss evidence showing (i) that all the compounds necessary for the build-up of nucleic acids are easily obtained abiotically, (ii) that essentially all the steps leading to the spontaneous generation of RNA are abiotically possible, (iii) that the key compounds of extant metabolic cycles are obtained in the same chemical frame, often in the same test tube. How close are these observations to a plausible scenario for the origin of life?
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Raffaele Saladino, Claudia Crestini, Samanta Pino, Giovanna Costanzo, Ernesto Di Mauro. Formamide and the origin of life.. Physics of Life Reviews, Elsevier, 2012, 9 (1), pp.84-104. ⟨10.1016/j.plrev.2011.12.002⟩. ⟨pasteur-00961566⟩

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