The fountain of life: Water droplets hold the secret ingredient for building life

Scientists have been baffled by the process of peptide-forming events in water for decades until it was discovered by chemists at Purdue University.

Graham Cooks, the Henry Bohn Hass Distinguished Professor of Analytical Chemistry in Purdue's College of Science, said, "This is basically the chemistry underpinning the genesis of life."

"This is the first proof that basic amino acids, which are the earliest known compounds, spontaneously transform into peptides, the fundamental units of life, in tiny drops of pure water. This is a shocking finding."

This water-based chemistry, which results in proteins and, ultimately, life on Earth, may hasten the creation of medicines to combat the most serious illnesses afflicting people today. The finding made by the team was documented in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences publication.

Scientists have proposed that life on Earth first appeared in the waters for many years. But the chemistry remained a mystery. Raw amino acids, which the early Earth received daily from meteorites, may react and latch together to create peptides, which are the building blocks of proteins and, ultimately, life. Strangely, the procedure calls for the loss of a water molecule, which in a moist, aquatic, or marine environment seems exceedingly improbable. It need water for life to develop. However, it also required room away from the sea.

Water isn't moist everywhere, according to Cooks and his colleagues, who are mass spectrometry and early Earth chemistry experts. Extremely quick reactions can occur at the water droplet's borders, where it contacts the environment, converting inert amino acids into the constituent parts of life. The potential evolution of life was best suited to environments with a lot of fresh water bubbling down a slope, sea spray flying into the air, and pounding waves.

The researchers have been examining chemical reactions in water-containing droplets using mass spectrometers for more than ten years.

According to Cooks, the rates of reactions in droplets can be up to a million times quicker than those of the same compounds reacting in bulk solution.

Catalysts are not required for these reactions because of their high speeds, which accelerate them and, in the case of early Earth chemistry, enable the emergence of life. Decades of scientific investigation have been focused on figuring out how this mechanism operates. Scientists can learn the secret of how life first appeared on Earth to better understand why it did and to guide their quest for life on other planets or even moons.

Scientists' knowledge of chemical synthesis has been completely transformed by our growing understanding of how amino acids assembled themselves into proteins and ultimately living forms. The same chemistry may potentially help synthetic chemists identify and create novel medications and therapeutic treatments for illnesses by accelerating key processes.

Synthetic chemists operate in the buildings with lights on if you go around a university campus at night, according to Cooks. "Their tests proceed so slowly that they take days or even weeks to complete. This is unnecessary, and we have developed a device that is now being utilized at Purdue to speed up the synthesis of unique compounds and possible new medicines."