Gimme Some Right-Handed Sugar, Baby!

(Slightly edited for brevity)

Scientists discover new clue to the chemical origins of life

Working with colleagues at the University of Nottingham, [Organic chemists at the University of York] have made the first step towards showing how simple sugars – threose and erythrose – developed. The research is published in Organic & Biomolecular Chemistry.

All sugars in biology are made up of the right-handed form of molecules and yet all the amino acids that make up the peptides and proteins are made up of the left-handed form. The researchers found using simple left-handed amino acids to catalyse the formation of sugars resulted in the production of predominately right-handed form of sugars. It could explain how carbohydrates originated and why the right-handed form dominates in nature.

[Team leader Dr. Paul Clarke says,] “… What we have achieved is the first step on that pathway [toward RNA/DNA synthesis] to show how simple sugars –threose and erythrose – originated. We generated these sugars from a very simple set of materials that most scientists believe were around at the time that life began.”

Abiogenesis is a pesky thing. The fact that it happened is even more obvious than evolution, seeing how we’re here and all … but how did it happen? Evolution occurs anywhere there’s life. Give it enough time and there will be genetic variation that will result in speciation under the right circumstances. There’s no analog for abiogenesis, so the best we can hope for is to get a thorough enough understanding of the conditions of pre-biotic earth and see what happens by replicating it in a lab.  It’s not like we can watch the process happen in nature at this point … at least on this world.  That’s one of the reasons why we’re so interested in places like Titan.  It’s the best chance we have of seeing the process begin, if it’s even possible in that environment.

Which reminds me of an article I read in Discover a few years ago about the possibility of life originating in ice … but that’s for another post.  (read:  I’m lazy).

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