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PAH world hypothesis

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Title: PAH world hypothesis  
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Subject: Panspermia, RNA world, Intergalactic dust, 2014 in science, Cosmic dust
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PAH world hypothesis

The PAH world hypothesis is a speculative hypothesis that proposes that polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH), known to be abundant in the universe,[1][2][3] and assumed to be abundant in the primordial soup of the early Earth, played a major role in the origin of life by mediating the synthesis of RNA molecules, leading into the RNA world. However, as yet, the hypothesis is untested.[4]

A PAH stack assembling


The Earth

The primordial soup. This experiment inspired many others. In 1961, Joan Oró found that the nucleotide base adenine could be made from hydrogen cyanide (HCN) and ammonia in a water solution.[5] Experiments conducted later showed that the other RNA and DNA nucleobases could be obtained through simulated prebiotic chemistry with a reducing atmosphere.[6]

The RNA world hypothesis shows how RNA can become its own catalyst (a ribozyme). In between there are some missing steps such as how the first RNA molecules could be formed. The PAH world hypothesis was proposed by Simon Nicholas Platts in May 2004 to try to fill in this missing step.[7] A more thoroughly elaborated idea has been published by Ehrenfreund et al..[8]

Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons

Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons are the most common and abundant of the known polyatomic molecules in the visible amino acids and nucleotides, the raw materials of proteins and DNA, respectively".[11][12] Further, as a result of these transformations, the PAHs lose their spectroscopic signature which could be one of the reasons "for the lack of PAH detection in interstellar ice grains, particularly the outer regions of cold, dense clouds or the upper molecular layers of protoplanetary disks."[11][12]

On June 6, 2013, scientists at the IAA-CSIC reported the detection of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons in the upper atmosphere of Titan, the largest moon of the planet Saturn.[13]

PAHs are not normally very soluble in sea water, but when subject to ionizing radiation such as solar UV light, the outer hydrogen atoms can be stripped off and replaced with a hydroxyl group, rendering the PAHs far more soluble in water.

These modified PAHs are amphiphilic, which means that they have parts that are both hydrophilic and hydrophobic. When in solution, they assemble in discotic mesogenic stacks which, like lipids, tend to organize with their hydrophobic parts protected.

On February 21, 2014, NASA announced a greatly upgraded database[14] for tracking polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) in the universe. According to scientists, more than 20% of the carbon in the universe may be associated with PAHs, possible starting materials for the formation of life. PAHs seem to have been formed as early as a couple of billion years after the Big Bang, are abundant in the universe,[1][2][3] and are associated with new stars and exoplanets.[14]

Attachment of nucleobases to PAH scaffolding

In the self ordering PAH stack, the separation between adjacent rings is 0.34 nm. This is the same separation found between adjacent nucleotides of RNA and DNA. Smaller molecules will naturally attach themselves to the PAH rings. However PAH rings, while forming, tend to swivel around on one another, which will tend to dislodge attached compounds that would collide with those attached to those above and below. Therefore it encourages preferential attachment of flat molecules such as pyrimidine and purine nucleobases, the key constituents (and information carriers) of RNA and DNA. These bases are similarly amphiphilic and so also tend to line up in similar stacks.

Attachment of oligomeric backbone

According to the hypothesis, once the nucleobases are attached (via hydrogen bonds) to the PAH scaffolding, the inter-base distance would select for "linker" molecules of a specific size, such as small formaldehyde (methanal) oligomers, also taken from the prebiotic "soup", which will bind (via covalent bonds) to the nucleobases as well as each other to add a flexible structural backbone.[4][7]

Detachment of the RNA-like strands

A subsequent transient drop in the ambient pH (increase in acidity), for example as a result of a volcanic discharge of acidic gases such as sulfur dioxide or carbon dioxide, would allow the bases to break off from their PAH scaffolding, forming RNA-like molecules (with the formaldehyde backbone instead of the ribose-phosphate backbone used by "modern" RNA, but the same 0.34 nm pitch).[4]

Formation of ribozyme-like structures

The hypothesis further speculates that once long RNA-like single strands are detached from the PAH stacks, and after ambient pH levels became less acidic, they would tend to fold back on themselves, with complementary sequences of nucleobases preferentially seeking out each other and forming hydrogen bonds, creating stable, at least partially double-stranded RNA-like structures, similar to ribozymes. The formaldehyde oligomers would eventually be replaced with more stable ribose-phosphate molecules for the backbone material, resulting in a starting milestone for the RNA world hypothesis, which speculates about further evolutionary developments from that point.[4][7][15]

See also


  1. ^ a b c Carey, Bjorn (October 18, 2005). "'"Life's Building Blocks 'Abundant in Space.  
  2. ^ a b c Hudgins, Douglas M.; Bauschlicher,Jr, Charles W.; Allamandola, L. J. (October 10, 2005). "Variations in the Peak Position of the 6.2 μm Interstellar Emission Feature: A Tracer of N in the Interstellar Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbon Population".  
  3. ^ a b c Allamandola, Louis et al. (April 13, 2011). "Cosmic Distribution of Chemical Complexity".  
  4. ^ a b c d Platts, Simon Nicholas, "The PAH World - Discotic polynuclear aromatic compounds as a mesophase scaffolding at the origin of life"
  5. ^ Oró J, Kimball AP (August 1961). "Synthesis of purines under possible primitive earth conditions. I. Adenine from hydrogen cyanide". Archives of biochemistry and biophysics 94: 217–27.  
  6. ^ Oró J (1967). Fox SW, ed. Origins of Prebiological Systems and of Their Molecular Matrices. New York Academic Press. p. 137. 
  7. ^ a b c "Prebiotic Molecular Selection and Organization", NASA's Astrobiology website
  8. ^ Ehrenfreund, P; Rasmussen, S; Cleaves, J; Chen, L (2006). "Experimentally tracing the key steps in the origin of life: The aromatic world". Astrobiology 6 (3): 490–520.  
  9. ^ García-Hernández, D. A.; Manchado, A.; García-Lario, P.; Stanghellini, L.; Villaver, E.; Shaw, R. A.; Szczerba, R.; Perea-Calderón, J. V. (2010-10-28). "Formation Of Fullerenes In H-Containing Planetary Nebulae".  
  10. ^ Atkinson, Nancy (October 27, 2010). "Buckyballs Could Be Plentiful in the Universe".  
  11. ^ a b Staff (September 20, 2012). "NASA Cooks Up Icy Organics to Mimic Life's Origins".  
  12. ^ a b Gudipati, Murthy S.; Yang, Rui (September 1, 2012). "In-Situ Probing Of Radiation-Induced Processing Of Organics In Astrophysical Ice Analogs—Novel Laser Desorption Laser Ionization Time-Of-Flight Mass Spectroscopic Studies".  
  13. ^ López-Puertas, Manuel (June 6, 2013). "PAH's in Titan's Upper Atmosphere".  
  14. ^ a b Hoover, Rachel (February 21, 2014). "Need to Track Organic Nano-Particles Across the Universe? NASA's Got an App for That".  
  15. ^ Lincoln, Tracey A.; Joyce, Gerald F. (January 8, 2009). "Self-Sustained Replication of an RNA Enzyme". Science (New York: American Association for the Advancement of Science) 323 (5918): 1229–32.  

External links

  • The 'PAH World'
  • Astrobiology magazine Aromatic World An interview with Pascale Ehrenfreund on PAH origin of life. - Accessed June 2006
  • Life's ingredients found in early universe New Scientist Magazine 14:49 July 29, 2005
  • RNA-directed amino acid homochirality
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