Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Life on Earth May Have Had an Icy Start

The cracks in ice could have served as a safe environment — much like a cell
— for the first life on Earth to replicate and evolve.

The study adds plausibility to the ‘RNA World’
that argues life began with a single stranded molecule capable of

“I always thought that the idea of an RNA world was exciting, but that RNA
was a perverse choice of primordial material because it was hard to imagine
chemical conditions under which they could survive on the early earth,” said
biologist Philipp Holliger of MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology in the United
Kingdom, who led a study in Nature
September 21.

“What we’ve found is that RNA would have been much happier in the ice than in
hydrothermal vents
, where it would have lasted only a few seconds,” Holliger

Holliger was inspired to study how RNA replicates
in icy conditions by a 2004
that found when nucleotides — the building blocks of genetic code —
are frozen in ice, they spontaneously assemble into random strands of RNA.

If nucleotides were present in the ice on early Earth, they could have formed
uncountable combinations of these random genetic strands, many of which would
have been meaningless. But a few of the strands might have contained the right
genetic code to begin self-replication.

Over time, the replicating RNA strands would have mutated and changed with
some of them surviving better than others, beginning the long chain of evolution
towards more complex organisms.

By testing the process out in beakers, adding water, salts, RNA building
blocks, and ribosomes — an
RNA-derived molecule that serves as a center for the further RNA replication —
Holliger found that liquid pockets ice would have served as an essential
container for this process to occur. The cold would have also kept the molecules
from degrading.

“It’s like the tortoise and the hare problem,” Holliger said. “The tortoise
is slower, but it keeps on going, rather than falling apart. One thing that was
available at the beginning of the Earth was time.”

A decade ago, this theory might have been dismissed because the early Earth
was thought to be so hot and volcanic that ice couldn’t form. But more recently
there has been evidence that the climate may have been more temperate, with
areas of ice on the poles and at high altitudes, Holliger said.

If the theory of an ice RNA world is correct, it could dramatically change our
search for life
elsewhere in the universe.

“Ice is literally everywhere,” Holliger said . “If we can conceive of life
arising and maybe thriving in ice it would considerably broaden the places to
look for life, both extant and extinct.”

Images: Flickr/Anita363

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