Abiotic Synthesis of RNA on Volcanic Glass Substrates

The research paper from Astrobiology is “Catalytic Synthesis of Polyribonucleic Acid on Prebiotic Rock Glasses”. Here is the abstract:

Reported here are experiments that show that ribonucleoside triphosphates are converted to polyribonucleic acid when incubated with rock glasses similar to those likely present 4.3–4.4 billion years ago on the Hadean Earth surface, where they were formed by impacts and volcanism. This polyribonucleic acid averages 100–300 nucleotides in length, with a substantial fraction of 3′,-5′-dinucleotide linkages. Chemical analyses, including classical methods that were used to prove the structure of natural RNA, establish a polyribonucleic acid structure for these products. The polyribonucleic acid accumulated and was stable for months, with a synthesis rate of 2\times 10^{−3} pmoles of triphosphate polymerized each hour per gram of glass (25°C, pH 7.5). These results suggest that polyribonucleotides were available to Hadean environments if triphosphates were. As many proposals are emerging describing how triphosphates might have been made on the Hadean Earth, the process observed here offers an important missing step in models for the prebiotic synthesis of RNA.


That is consistent with Prof. Gold’s old suggestion of the deep hot biosphere – that rock surfaces in tiny subterranean pores might have served as catalytic surfaces on which smaller molecules could have assembled into larger molecules. It is good to see experimental confirmation that Prof. Gold’s proposed mechanism can actually occur.

However, just like with those early experiments in forming “organic” molecules from electrical discharges in an atmosphere, it remains a huge step from having a soup of organic molecules to having a consuming reproducing living organism. There is much still to learn.