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Illuminating the origins of life

An RNA reactor might have facilitated pre-biotic information transfer

Munich, 06/27/2011

A computer model developed by LMU researchers led by the physicist Professor Ulrich Gerland throws new light on an ancient problem by providing a plausible scenario for the transition from pre-biotic chemical compounds to early forms of the biologically active molecules found in all living organisms today. The starting point for the new work was the so-called “RNA world” hypothesis. This postulates that RNA (a type of nucleic acid closely related to the DNA that serves as a store for biological information in modern organisms) acted as the central catalyst of biochemical processes during the earliest stages of biological evolution. “But it is not clear how a dispersed population of short fragments of RNA could give rise, by purely chemical means, to a self-replicating system that could then evolve step by step into ever more complex forms,” says Gerland. Self-replication in this context is defined as the transmission of information from one molecule to another in such a way that the information survives if the progenitor molecule is destroyed. Gerland and his team have developed a scenario in which a chemically stable information store can emerge via a sequence of simple steps. The central element in their simulation is a hydrothermal reactor of the kind described by co-author Professor Dieter Braun in earlier work. In this type of reactor, fragments of RNA accumulate in solution under the influence of a temperature gradient, and can subsequently fold spontaneously into specific shapes, can interact in various ways, and can be fragmented. “Our computer simulations and analytical models have shown that, in such an RNA reactor, these processes allow longer RNA molecules to be produced, and suggest that information can indeed be spontaneously transferred between molecules,” says Dr. Benedikt Obermayer, who is the first author on the new study. “We now want to test, in collaboration with Dieter Braun‘s group, whether we can actually confirm experimentally the predictions derived from our theoretical model.” The project was carried out in the context of the Nanosystems Initiative Munich (NIM), an LMU Center of Excellence. (suwe)

Publication:
Emergence of information transmission in a prebiotic RNA reactor
Benedikt Obermayer, Hubert Krammer, Dieter Braun, and Ulrich Gerland
Physical Review Letters online, 27 June 2011
DOI: 10.1103/PhysRevLett.107.018101

Contact:
Professor Ulrich Gerland
Department of Physics, LMU Munich
Phone: +49 (0) 89 2180 – 4514
Fax: +49 (0) 89 / 2180 – 13545
Email: gerland@lmu.de
Web: www.theorie.physik.uni-muenchen.de/lsfrey/members/group_leaders/ulrich_gerland

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