Genomics and Cell Biology: January 2012

Study challenges existence of arsenic-based life, Nature

"A group of scientists, led by microbiologist Rosie Redfield at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada, have posted data on Redfield's blog that, she says, present a "clear refutation" of key findings from the paper. But after Redfield and others raised numerous concerns, many of which were published as technical comments in Science, Redfield put the results to the test, documenting her progress on her blog to advance the cause of open science ... Redfield and her collaborators hope to submit their work to Science by the end of the month. She says that if Science refuses to publish the work because it has been discussed on blogs, it will become an important test case for open science."

- Arsenic, Astrobiology, NASA, and the Media, earlier post
- NASA Researchers Start To Backtrack on Earlier Claims, earlier post
- Snarky NASA SMD Response to Snarky Public Astrobiology Discussion, earlier post
- Weird Arsenic-Eating Microbes Discovered? Yes. Finding E.T.? No, earlier post
- Arsenic-Based Life Found on Earth, earlier post
- NASA's Astrobiology News: Arsenic Biochemistry Anyone? (Update), earlier post

Volcanic-hydrothermal flow channels offer a chemically unique environment, which at first glance appears hostile to life. It is defined by cracks in the crust of the earth, through which water flows, laden with volcanic gases are contacting a diversity of minerals. And yet - it is precisely this extreme environment, where the two mechanisms could have emerged, which are at the root of all life: The multiplication of biomolecules (reproduction) and the emergence of new biomolecules on the basis of previously formed biomolecules (evolution).

At the outset of this concatenation of reactions that led eventually to the formation of cellular forms of life there are only a few amino acids, which are formed from volcanic gases by mineral catalysis. Akin to a domino stone that triggers a whole avalanche, these first biomolecules stimulate not only their own further synthesis but also the production of wholly new biomolecules. "In this manner life begins by necessity in accordance with pre-established laws of chemistry and in a pre-determined direction", declares Guenter Waechtershaeuser, honorary professor for evolutionary biochemistry at the University of Regensburg. He developed the mechanism of a self-generating metabolism - theoretically, alas, an experimental demonstration has been lacking so far.

In the chemistry of the living world, a pair of nucleic acids--DNA and RNA--reign supreme. As carrier molecules of the genetic code, they provide all organisms with a mechanism for faithfully reproducing themselves as well as generating the myriad proteins vital to living systems.

Yet according to John Chaput, a researcher at the Center for Evolutionary Medicine and Informatics, at Arizona State University's Biodesign Institute(R), it may not always have been so.

Chaput and other researchers studying the first tentative flickering of life on earth have investigated various alternatives to familiar genetic molecules. These chemical candidates are attractive to those seeking to unlock the still-elusive secret of how the first life began, as primitive molecular forms may have more readily emerged during the planet's prebiotic era. One approach to identifying molecules that may have acted as genetic precursors to RNA and DNA is to examine other nucleic acids that differ slightly in their chemical composition, yet still possess critical properties of self-assembly and replication as well as the ability to fold into shapes useful for biological function.

According to Chaput, one interesting contender for the role of early genetic carrier is a molecule known as TNA, whose arrival on the primordial scene may have predated its more familiar kin. A nucleic acid similar in form to both DNA and RNA, TNA differs in the sugar component of its structure, using threose rather than deoxyribose (as in DNA) or ribose (as in RNA) to compose its backbone.

In an article released online today in the journal Nature Chemistry, Chaput and his group describe the Darwinian evolution of functional TNA molecules from a large pool of random sequences. This is the first case where such methods have been applied to molecules other than DNA and RNA, or very close structural analogues thereof. Chaput says "the most important finding to come from this work is that TNA can fold into complex shapes that can bind to a desired target with high affinity and specificity". This feature suggests that in the future it may be possible to evolve TNA enzymes with functions required to sustain early life forms.