Categories: EarthExtreme Life

All Life on Earth is Made up of the Same 20 Amino Acids. Scientist Now Think They Know Why

The question of how life on Earth first emerged is one that humans have been asking themselves since time immemorial. While scientists are relatively confident about when it happened, there has been no definitive answer as to why it did. How did amino acids, the chemical building blocks of life, come together roughly four billion years ago to create the first protein molecules?

While that question is still unanswered, scientists are making new discoveries that could help narrow it down. For instance, a team of researchers from the Georgia Institute of Technology’s Center for Chemical Evolution (CCT) recently conducted a study that showed how some of the earliest predecessors of the protein molecule may have spontaneously linked up to form a chain.

The study recently appeared in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The study was led by Dr. Moran Frenkel-Pinter of Georgia Tech and included multiple researchers from the CCT – which is supported by NASA and the National Science Foundation (NSF) – with assistance from Dr. Luke Leman, and assistant professor of chemistry at Scripps Research, a non-profit medical research institute.

Earth’s Hadean Eon is a bit of a mystery to us, because geologic evidence from that time is scarce. Researchers at the Australian National University have used tiny zircon grains to get a better picture of early Earth. Credit: NASA

For decades, scientists have had theories about how the first amino acids came together to form protein molecules. Unfortunately, all attempts to verify these theories have so far failed. As Dr. Leman explained:

“How chemistry led to complex life is one of the most fascinating questions that mankind has pondered. There are a lot of theories about the origins of proteins but not so much experimental laboratory support for these ideas.”

For their study, the research team conducted an experiment where a small selection of amino acids (lysine, arginine, and histidine) were placed together with three non-biological competitor amino acids. The acids were then subjected to conditions similar to what is believed to have existed on Earth during the Hadean Eon (ca. 4 billion years ago).

This consisted of putting the selected amino acids in water containing hydroxy acids, which are known to facilitate amino acid reactions and would have been common on prebiotic Earth. The mixture was then heated to 85 °C (185 °F), which sped up the reaction process and caused the water to evaporate. The resulting chemical reactions were then studied.

The building blocks of life may have formed on primordial Earth spontaneously. Credit:

To their surprise, the biological amino acids spontaneously formed into neat segments that linked together via ?-amine groups. These groups are those that are made of nitrogen and hydrogen and are quite reactive. However, they are also part of the core of amino acids and other amines that form sidechains that extend from the core (which were used in this experiment) are often more reactive. As Dr. Frenkel-Pinter said:

“It surprised us that this chemistry favored the ?-amine connection found in proteins, even though chemical principles might have led us to believe that the non-protein connection would be favored. The preference for the protein-like linkage over non-protein was about seven to one.”

Another surprise was the fact that the biological amino acids beat out the non-biological ones in terms of reactivity. The latter acids, which are not found in proteins today, had the potential to chemically react just as well (or better than) the biological ones. What’s more, the team anticipated that the inclusion of these acids would give the biological ones a run for their money and might even lead to the creation of new proteins.

However, the reactions resulted mostly in the formation of peptides (two or more amino acid building blocks linked together) that were closer to today’s actual proteins. In particular, the researchers thought that the non-biological amino acids would outcompete the biological amino acid known as lysine and that lysine would not be able to form chains reliably.

An artist’s rendering of the early moon and Earth, which sustained many asteroid impacts. Credit: Simone Marchi (SwRI)/SSERVI/NASA

In both cases, they were wrong and instead found that the lysine predominantly went into the chains in a way that it is similar to what happens with proteins today. From this, the team hypothesized that prefabricated amino acid chains that are useful in living systems evolved before life had found a way to make proteins.

The fact that their experiment showed that biological amino acids are preferred over non-biological ones may also offer new insight into why just 20 amino acids went into the formation of life. Scientists believe that there were over 500 naturally-occurring acids present on Earth during the Hadean Eon. As Loren Williams, a professor of biochemistry at Georgia Tech, explained:

“Our idea is that life started with the many building blocks that were there and selected a subset of them, but we don’t know how much was selected on the basis of pure chemistry or how much biological processes did the selecting. Looking at this study, it appears today’s biology may reflect these early prebiotic chemical reactions more than we had thought.”

“In the prebiotic Earth, there would have been a much larger set of amino acids. Is there something special about these 20 amino acids, or did these just get frozen at a moment in time by evolution?” In short, the experiment suggests that the kinds of amino acids used in proteins are more likely to link up together because they react together more efficiently and have few inefficient side reactions.

The first amino acids likely formed in water with hydroxy acids, which were then subjected to dry conditions. Credit: David A. Aguilar (CfA)

In short, the experiment suggests that the kinds of amino acids used in proteins are more likely to link up together because they react together more efficiently and have few inefficient side reactions. It also lends additional credibility to the theory that most biological polymers formed in wet and dry cycles, which is something that CCT researchers have been arguing for years.

This theory, which states that the first proteins occurred on rain-swept dirt flats or sun-baked lakeshore rocks, is at odds with the more conventional narrative that the building blocks of life rely on rare and cataclysmic events, as well as multiple ingredients in order to emerge. By showing that it was likely to be a much more straightforward process, this research could bring us one step closer to unlocking this age-old mystery.

It could also have implications in the search for life beyond Earth. If the building blocks of life are naturally reactive and attracted to one another, then it likely increases the odds that similar chemical reactions took place elsewhere in the Universe!

Further Reading; Scripps Research

Matt Williams

Matt Williams is the Curator of Universe Today's Guide to Space. He is also a freelance writer, a science fiction author and a Taekwon-Do instructor. He lives with his family on Vancouver Island in beautiful British Columbia.

View Comments

  • It is interesting that the amino acid production pathways join the sugar/nucleobases/nucleotide pathways as being natural promoted without needing catalysts (or later enzymes) and without much side reactions (see Keller et al pathways for glucose/pentose, for instance).

    However the peptide & wet/dry cycle worlds preferred by US biochemists are not necessarily the constraints and not what the phylogenetic evidence points to. If I understood the paper correctly the wet cycle is more generally chemicals under dilution in water, the dry cycle their concentration by water removal. The ubiquitous, low turnaround time Hadean environment that provided both dilution/concentration processes were hydrothermal vents with cold/hot circulation instead. And this is precisely the environment phylogenies points to for the universal ancestor lineage.

    The genetic code show a preferred order of amino acid use, where the first 10 or so amino acids - a basic protein inventory worth - that got the initial coding were the ones that are most easily produced in Miller synthesis. This implies that code was coevolving with peptides, not a product of a peptide world. We cannot exclude the possibility, but the exciting advancements here do not exclude the more generic simultaneous pathways either.

    • MANY years ago I recall reading an article proposing that steps in synthesis of life could have been aided by the charge architecture of clay platelets. Do you know the current status of this concept?

Recent Posts

We Could Detect Extraterrestrial Satellite Megaconstellations Within a few Hundred Light-Years

If an alien civilization has a Starlink-like constellation of satellites, we might be able to…

7 hours ago

What we’ve Learned About Venus From the Parker Solar Probe

The Parker Solar Probe has been getting in a lot of extracurricular activity lately.  Originally…

11 hours ago

One Full Year of Seismic Data Collected by Mars Insight Includes 500 Quakes

The English vocabulary has some words that only make sense from an Earth-bound perspective.  Earthquake…

12 hours ago

SpaceX’s SN15 Starship Prototype Nails It!

On the fifth attempt, SpaceX nailed the high-altitude flight test with a Starship prototype! Onward…

2 days ago

Dark Matter Could Change the Temperature of Exoplanets, Allowing us to Detect it

If dark matter exists, it could make Jupiter-like exoplanets warmer than we expect.

2 days ago