Found: the origin of life

Scientists solve the mystery of how the Earth was transformed

Of all the scientific mysteries, this is probably the greatest one of all – how did life on Earth begin? We are not talking about how it evolved into the diversity of lifeforms we see today. We are talking about how it originated in the first place.

For all his immense insight into evolution, Charles Darwin himself was stumped. He suggested that whatever the mechanism was that had led to the first replicating lifeforms, it most probably arose in some "warm little pond", a primordial soup of pre-biotic ingredients where the seed of life first germinated on the early Earth.

Now scientists have developed an experiment demonstrating how the very first self-replicating molecules may have formed about 4 billion years ago when the Earth was like any other lifeless planet that had yet to experience the radical transformation of living, breathing creatures.

John Sutherland and colleagues at Manchester University have broken new ground by being able to synthesise almost from scratch two of the four building blocks of RNA, the self-replicating molecule that many scientist believe to be the most likely contender for the original molecule of life. Dr Sutherland believes that he has shown how it was possible to make all the building blocks of RNA from the simple chemicals that would have existed on Earth 4 billion years ago.

"We've made the building blocks of RNA from what was around on the early Earth and is still around in interstellar space and in the atmosphere of Saturn's moon Titan," Dr Sutherland said.

"We haven't yet made the RNA molecule itself but we've made two of the four sub-units or building blocks. It suggests that making the molecule is possible. The building blocks are strung together and doing that is actually easier than making the building blocks themselves," he said.

RNA is the less familiar cousin of DNA, the genetic blueprint of life. Like DNA, the RNA molecule can carry and transmit information from one generation to the next. But unlike DNA, RNA is a relatively simple molecule that many scientists believed could have been quite easy to synthesise in the harsh environment of the early Earth. The trouble with this idea – which is more than 40 years old – is that no one has been able to join up the three components, the sugars, bases and phosphates that make up each of the four building blocks of RNA, under the sort of conditions that existed 4 billion years ago. Dr Sutherland, however, has shown in a study published in the journal Nature that this is indeed possible.

"The trouble is, the human eye sees the three components of RNA and so the human brain assumes that to make the molecule you should combine those three components. People have found that they can make the sugars and the bases but the key thing they can't do is to join them together," Dr Sutherland said.

"And so for 40 or so years they have worked on the problem and have become so frustrated that they have decided that RNA, although very desirable, is just too complicated and so there must have been a simpler molecule that spawned RNA. We've just changed the order of assembly of the pieces, but it's overcome the dogma that it cannot be done," he said.

In trying to explain how life began on Earth, scientists have attempted to formulate theories to account for how the first self-replicating molecule came into existence. One of the earliest theories was the "primordial soup", where simple molecules mixed together in a broth that was regularly energised by ultraviolet light and electric storms.

Over time, these simple molecules would have combined to form more complex substances containing the all-important atomic ingredients of life – oxygen, carbon, hydrogen and nitrogen. Although scientists were able to make the building blocks of proteins in this way, they failed to do the same with DNA or RNA.

Scientists first proposed that RNA preceded proteins in the 1960s, but it was not until the 1980s that they received strong support for the idea. Thomas Cech at the University of Colorado and Sidney Altman at Yale, found that RNA could act as a catalyst by speeding up a chemical reaction and yet being unchanged in the process – a feat normally reserved for enzymes.

This was the first hard evidence that RNA, a molecule that can replicate and store genetic information, could also have triggered the first synthesis of life's proteins. Most scientists now believe that there was an "RNA world" early in the Earth's history from which all present-day life is ultimately descended.

News
peopleTop Gear presenter and all-round controversialist is at it again
Life & Style
techHow a 'grey brick' took over the world of portable gaming
Sport
Aaron Ramsey celebrates after opening the scoring in Arsenal's win over Hull `
sport
News
peopleActress speaks out against historic sexual assault claims, saying things have 'gone quite far now'

VIDEO
News
Coren Mitchell, who is the daughter of the late broadcaster Alan Coren and is married to comedian David Mitchell, produced a hand to make poker history at the 98th EPT main event.
peopleJournalist and TV presenter becomes first ever two-time winner of the European Poker Tour
Arts & Entertainment
A stranger calls: Martin Freeman in ‘Fargo’
tvReview: New 10-part series brims with characters and stories

Life & Style
Guests enjoy food and cocktail parings by Chefs Jimmy Bannos, Jimmy Bannos Jr, Daniel Rose and Mindy Segal with mixologists Josh King and Alex Gara at Bounty & Barrel: A Jack Daniel's Single Barrel Dinner Series at Heaven on Seven on April 9, 2014 in Chicago, Illinois.
food + drinkSprinkle Palcohol 'on almost any dish' for 'an extra kick' firm says...
Arts & Entertainment
Shaun Evans as Endeavour interviews a prisoner as he tries to get to the bottom of a police cover up
tvReview: Second series comes to close with startling tale of police corruption and child abuse
Arts & Entertainment
Schwarzenegger winning Mr. Universe 1969
arts + entsCan you guess the celebrity from these British Pathe News clips?
News
politicsLabour launches the 'completely hollow' Easter Clegg
Sport
Luis Suarez celebrates after scoring in Liverpool's 3-2 win over Norwich
sport Another hurdle is out of the way for Brendan Rodgers' side
News
Portrait of Queen Elizabeth-II by David Bailey which has been released to mark her 88th birthday
peoplePortrait released to mark monarch's 88th birthday
Arts & Entertainment
The star of the sitcom ‘Miranda’ is hugely popular with mainstream audiences
TVMiranda Hart lined up for ‘Generation Game’ revival
Life & Style
The writer, Gerda Saunders, with her mother, who also suffered with dementia before her death
healthGerda Saunders on the most formidable effect of her dementia
Arts & Entertainment
Last, but by no means least, is Tommy Cooper and the fez. This style of hat became a permanent trademark of his act.
comedyNot Like That, Like This centres on alleged domestic abuse
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Geography Teacher

£130 - £140 per day: Randstad Education Ilford: Secondary Geography Teacher Lo...

Do you want to work in Education?

£55 - £70 per day: Randstad Education Cheshire: Are you a dynamic and energeti...

SEN Teaching Assistant

Negotiable: Randstad Education Group: SEN TAs, LSAs and Support Workers needed...

Private Client Senior Manager - Sheffield

£50000 - £60000 per annum: Pro-Recruitment Group: The Sheffield office of this...

Day In a Page

Rubin ‘Hurricane’ Carter: The man who could have been champion of the world - and the Bob Dylan song that immortalised him

The man who could have been champion of the world

Rubin ‘Hurricane’ Carter and the Bob Dylan song that immortalised him
Didn’t she do well?

Didn’t she do well?

Miranda Hart lined up for ‘Generation Game’ revival
The Middle East we must confront in the future will be a Mafiastan ruled by money

The Middle East we must confront in the future will be a Mafiastan ruled by money

In Iraq, mafiosi already run almost the entire oil output of the south of the country
Before they were famous

Before they were famous

Can you guess the celebrity from these British Pathe News clips?
Martin Freeman’s casting in Fargo is genius

Martin Freeman’s casting in Fargo is a stroke of genius

Series is brimming with characters and stories all its own
How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe: Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC

How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe

Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC
Video of British Muslims dancing to Pharrell Williams's hit Happy attacked as 'sinful'

British Muslims's Happy video attacked as 'sinful'

The four-minute clip by Honesty Policy has had more than 300,000 hits on YouTube
Church of England-raised Michael Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith

Michael Williams: Do as I do, not as I pray

Church of England-raised Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith
A History of the First World War in 100 moments: A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife

A History of the First World War in 100 moments

A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife
Comedian Jenny Collier: 'Sexism I experienced on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

Jenny Collier: 'Sexism on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

The comedian's appearance at a show on the eve of International Women's Day was cancelled because they had "too many women" on the bill
Cannes Film Festival: Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or

Cannes Film Festival

Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or
The concept album makes surprise top ten return with neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson

The concept album makes surprise top ten return

Neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson is unexpected success
Lichen is the surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus, thanks to our love of Scandinavian and Indian cuisines

Lichen is surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus

Emily Jupp discovers how it can give a unique, smoky flavour to our cooking
10 best baking books

10 best baking books

Planning a spot of baking this bank holiday weekend? From old favourites to new releases, here’s ten cookbooks for you
Jury still out on Manchester City boss Manuel Pellegrini

Jury still out on Pellegrini

Draw with Sunderland raises questions over Manchester City manager's ability to motivate and unify his players