UV irradiation of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons in ices: production of alcohols, quinones, and ethers.
Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) in water ice were exposed to ultraviolet (UV) radiation under astrophysical conditions, and the products were analyzed by infrared spectroscopy and mass spectrometry. Peripheral carbon atoms were oxidized, producing aromatic alcohols, ketones, and ethers, and reduced, producing partially hydrogenated aromatic hydrocarbons, molecules that account for the interstellar 3.4-micrometer emission feature. These classes of compounds are all present in carbonaceous meteorites. Hydrogen and deuterium atoms exchange readily between the PAHs and the ice, which may explain the deuterium enrichments found in certain meteoritic molecules. This work has important implications for extraterrestrial organics in biogenesis. (+info)
Divergence time estimates for the early history of animal phyla and the origin of plants, animals and fungi.
In the past, molecular clocks have been used to estimate divergence times among animal phyla, but those time estimates have varied widely (1200-670 million years ago, Ma). In order to obtain time estimates that are more robust, we have analysed a larger number of genes for divergences among three well-represented animal phyla, and among plants, animals and fungi. The time estimate for the chordate-arthropod divergence, using 50 genes, is 993 +/- 46 Ma. Nematodes were found to have diverged from the lineage leading to arthropods and chordates at 1177 +/- 79 Ma. Phylogenetic analyses also show that a basal position of nematodes has strong support (p > 99%) and is not the result of rate biases. The three-way split (relationships unresolved) of plants, animals and fungi was estimated at 1576 +/- 88 Ma. By inference, the basal animal phyla (Porifera, Cnidaria, Ctenophora) diverged between about 1200-1500 Ma. This suggests that at least six animal phyla originated deep in the Precambrian, more than 400 million years earlier than their first appearance in the fossil record. (+info)
Prebiotic cytosine synthesis: a critical analysis and implications for the origin of life.
A number of theories propose that RNA, or an RNA-like substance, played a role in the origin of life. Usually, such hypotheses presume that the Watson-Crick bases were readily available on prebiotic Earth, for spontaneous incorporation into a replicator. Cytosine, however, has not been reported in analyses of meteorites nor is it among the products of electric spark discharge experiments. The reported prebiotic syntheses of cytosine involve the reaction of cyanoacetylene (or its hydrolysis product, cyanoacetaldehyde), with cyanate, cyanogen, or urea. These substances undergo side reactions with common nucleophiles that appear to proceed more rapidly than cytosine formation. To favor cytosine formation, reactant concentrations are required that are implausible in a natural setting. Furthermore, cytosine is consumed by deamination (the half-life for deamination at 25 degrees C is approximately 340 yr) and other reactions. No reactions have been described thus far that would produce cytosine, even in a specialized local setting, at a rate sufficient to compensate for its decomposition. On the basis of this evidence, it appears quite unlikely that cytosine played a role in the origin of life. Theories that involve replicators that function without the Watson-Crick pairs, or no replicator at all, remain as viable alternatives. (+info)
Molecular evolution: aminoacyl-tRNA synthetases on the loose.
Modified versions - paralogs - of the catalytic domain of at least three different aminoacyl-tRNA synthetases have been found to serve catalytic or regulatory roles in other reactions. These findings suggest that the first modern tRNA-synthetases could have been derived from amino-acid biosynthetic enzymes. (+info)
Ribozymes--why so many, why so few?
The RNA world scenario posits the existence of catalytic and genetic networks whose reactions are catalyzed by RNAs. Substantial progress has been made in recent years in the selection of RNA catalysts by SELEX, thus verifying one prediction of the model. However, many selected catalysts are long molecules, leading to a question of whether they could have been synthesized by a primitive replicator. It is proposed that the efficiency of some small ribozymes may have been augmented by other RNAs acting as transactivators. (+info)
The evolution of a universal genetic code.
Some of the basic problems presented by the rapid evolution of a universal genetic code can be resolved by a mechanism of co-evolution of the code and the amino acids it serves. (+info)
Life: past, present and future.
Molecular methods of taxonomy and phylogeny have changed the way in which life on earth is viewed; they have allowed us to transition from a eukaryote-centric (five-kingdoms) view of the planet to one that is peculiarly prokarote-centric, containing three kingdoms, two of which are prokaryotic unicells. These prokaryotes are distinguished from their eukaryotic counterparts by their toughness, tenacity and metabolic diversity. Realization of these features has, in many ways, changed the way we feel about life on earth, about the nature of life past and about the possibility of finding life elsewhere. In essence, the limits of life on this planet have expanded to such a degree that our thoughts of both past and future life have been altered. The abilities of prokaryotes to withstand many extreme conditions has led to the term extremophiles, used to describe the organisms that thrive under conditions thought just a few years ago, to be inconsistent with life. Perhaps the most extensive adaptation to extreme conditions, however, is represented by the ability of many bacteria to survive nutrient conditions not compatible with eukaryotic life. Prokaryotes have evolved to use nearly every redox couple that is in abundance on earth, filling the metabolic niches left behind by the oxygen-using, carbon-eating eukaryotes. This metabolic plasticity leads to a common feature in physically stratified environments of layered microbial communities, chemical indicators of the metabolic diversity of the prokaryotes. Such 'metabolic extremophily' forms a backdrop by which we can view the energy flow of life on this planet, think about what the evolutionary past of the planet might have been, and plan ways to look for life elsewhere, using the knowledge of energy flow on earth. (+info)
The missing organic molecules on Mars.
GC-MS on the Viking 1976 Mars missions did not detect organic molecules on the Martian surface, even those expected from meteorite bombardment. This result suggested that the Martian regolith might hold a potent oxidant that converts all organic molecules to carbon dioxide rapidly relative to the rate at which they arrive. This conclusion is influencing the design of Mars missions. We reexamine this conclusion in light of what is known about the oxidation of organic compounds generally and the nature of organics likely to come to Mars via meteorite. We conclude that nonvolatile salts of benzenecarboxylic acids, and perhaps oxalic and acetic acid, should be metastable intermediates of meteoritic organics under oxidizing conditions. Salts of these organic acids would have been largely invisible to GC-MS. Experiments show that one of these, benzenehexacarboxylic acid (mellitic acid), is generated by oxidation of organic matter known to come to Mars, is rather stable to further oxidation, and would not have been easily detected by the Viking experiments. Approximately 2 kg of meteorite-derived mellitic acid may have been generated per m(2) of Martian surface over 3 billion years. How much remains depends on decomposition rates under Martian conditions. As available data do not require that the surface of Mars be very strongly oxidizing, some organic molecules might be found near the surface of Mars, perhaps in amounts sufficient to be a resource. Missions should seek these and recognize that these complicate the search for organics from entirely hypothetical Martian life. (+info)