Essential Compound to Life Birthed in a Lab

No extreme heat or complex molecules required, meaning life may be more common than thought
By Arden Dier,  Newser Staff
Posted Mar 1, 2024 12:26 PM CST
Essential Compound to Life Birthed in a Lab
A model of the pantetheine molecule.   (Wikimedia Commons/Jynto)

"Why do we have life?" It's a massive question scientists have inched closer to answering in creating an essential compound for life in a lab, using simple molecules likely around during Earth's early days. All organisms are made from primary metabolites, directly involved in cell growth and development. One such primary metabolite, coenzyme A, "sits at the heart of metabolism across all domains of life," per the Washington Post. Its most important component is pantetheine, a "co-factor" without which the coenzyme would be useless. Some have argued lifeforms used pantetheine, a molecule with a complex structure, to store energy early on before cells evolved more elaborate systems.

Though "we can't go back to the origin of life," we can "start from scratch, re-engineer a cell, understand what it takes to build an organism," Matthew Powner, a professor at University College London, tells the Post. So that's what he and colleagues did, mostly using materials—like water, methane, ammonia, and hydrogen cyanide—that scientists believe would've been abundant during the early life of our planet. They also introduced nitrogen-based compounds called nitriles, which appear to have made all the difference. "You'd think you would get a mess, but you don't," Jasper Fairchild, a PhD candidate at UCL who led the experiment, tells the Post. "You just get pantetheine."

The team believes the reaction that took place in the lab over 60 days at room temperature could've also taken place in early Earth's small pools and lakes, where the concentration of chemicals wouldn't be overly diluted. Powner—who previously showed nitriles can be used to make nucleotides, the building blocks of DNA, and peptides, which help form proteins—argues these building blocks of life came together to naturally birth the real thing, living cells, per New Scientist. The study, published Feb. 22 in Science, suggests "life could have begun in more places than we thought," per It also opens up the possibility that scientists could "someday create life from static materials in a lab, or even on another planet," per the Post. (More life stories.)

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