Did evolution occur before life even existed? New study sheds light on how amino acids "evolved"

Recent studies shed light on the prehistoric processes that gave rise to the first species on Earth.

One of the biggest scientific puzzles is how life first appeared on Earth. Although the exact mechanism that led to the evolution of complicated, cellular life some 3.7 billion years ago is still unknown, scientists do have some fairly compelling hypotheses. A hypothesis, however, is more than just a reasonable guess; it also needs to explain the data that is already known and be able to be tested.

Numerous pieces of evidence point to the gradual evolution of single-celled creatures from the haphazard collection of molecules floating in water. Microbial mats, which are bands of deceased, fossilized microbes that develop in sediment or on the surfaces of rocks, are one type of old life's traces. Chemical research and radioactive dating can help us determine their age and help us determine when life first started.

Using tests that mimic our best guesses of what an ancient Earth would have looked like, we can even test this hypothesis. For instance, in 1952, the Miller-Urey Experiment used electrical sparks to mimic the circumstances of Earth's early atmosphere using a mixture of gases (primarily methane, ammonia, and hydrogen). A number of organic substances, including amino acids, which are the building elements of proteins, were created during the experiment. In fact, experts think that the first cell was formed when amino acids, which are present in vast abundance today, first appeared on the planet.

Proteins are like sentences, whereas amino acids are like the characters in an alphabet. Proteins can be arranged into "sentences," in this case, biological processes that function somewhat like tiny Rube Goldberg devices and enable life to do, well, everything.

Most scientists do not believe proteins to be alive. They are substantial, intricate molecules composed of lengthy sequences of amino acids, which are necessary for the growth and maintenance of all living things. So where do you draw the line between a protein that isn't alive and a living thing? It all boils down to those pathways, which are controlled by DNA, the biological language.

In other words, discovering how DNA originated is essential to comprehending the origin of life. Furthermore, knowing what the Earth's composition was like before life appeared, including the types of amino acids and proteins that were present, brings us one step closer to comprehending how life first appeared on Earth.

A recent study published in the Journal of the American Chemical Society contends that evolution started long before life first materialized and that proteins churning about in the primeval soup chose for advantageous characteristics. In other words, among the non-living proteins and amino acids in the primordial soup, there was a type of Darwinian selection process going on (even before the advent of life).

This hypothesis explains why all living creatures depend on only about 20 of the hundreds of various amino acids that may have existed on the early Earth. So why were these particular amino acids chosen?

"You see the same amino acids in every organism, from humans to bacteria to archaea, and that's because all things on Earth are connected through this tree of life that has an origin, an organism that was the ancestor to all living things," said Stephen Fried, a Johns Hopkins chemist who led the research along with researchers at Charles University in the Czech Republic. We're explaining the circumstances that influenced how that progenitor acquired the specific amino acids it did.

While there are 20 essential amino acids, mounting evidence indicates that only 10 were present when primordial life first began. In order to test this, the researchers built several distinct libraries of various amino acid combos and examined them for two properties: solubility and propensities for secondary structure. These words simply refer to the correct shapes of proteins, despite the fact that they sound complex (and they are).

The forms and folds of proteins play a significant role in how they work. This controls their interactions with other molecules and their surroundings. Imagine them as a piece of folding paper that can be curled in a variety of ways.

The researchers came to the conclusion that proteins were evolving and causing natural selection before even giving rise to living entities by evaluating which libraries had the greatest solubility and structure. The basic stages of life gradually included the protein shapes that worked best for metabolic processes.

Before there was even living on our world, protein folding essentially allowed for evolution, according to Fried. "Evolution could have occurred before biology, and even before DNA, there could have been natural selection for the molecules necessary for living."

"A complex method of converting hereditary components like DNA and RNA into proteins is required for evolution in the Darwinian sense. However, proteins are also necessary for DNA replication, so we have a chicken-and-egg issue "added Fried. Our study demonstrates that, prior to Darwinian evolution, nature might have chosen to favor building units with advantageous characteristics.

Of course, the more we research the origins of life on Earth, the more accurately we can predict the origins of life on other worlds. Because amino acids are plentiful in asteroids, it is possible that other parts of the cosmos have the right circumstances for the emergence of alien life.

Fried said, "The world seems to adore amino acids. "Perhaps it wouldn't be that different if we discovered life on a distant world."