In attempting to recreate the conditions of Earth circa billions of years ago, a research team may have uncovered a key “missing link” in our knowledge of the origin of life on Earth. The discovery of diamidophosphate (DAP), a compound that may have been present in early Earth, is an exciting step forward in understanding how early life emerged from various ingredients and conditions. “It reminds me of the Fairy Godmother in Cinderella, who waves a wand and ‘poof,’ ‘poof,’ ‘poof,’ everything simple is transformed into something more complex and interesting,” said Ramanarayanan Krishnamurthy, senior author of the study published in Nature Chemistry and chemist at the Scripps Research Institute in California.
The key to DAP’s “magic” is its ability to facilitate a process called phosphorylation, an essential process in the function of chemicals from neurotransmitters to proteins, and the linking of a particular compound with a phosphate. This process is very common in biochemistry and enables proteins, neurotransmitters and countless other chemicals to function within organic systems. To determine DAP’s fitness to facilitate the origins of life, the team checked DAP’s ability to phosphorylate with several crucial organic compounds. These included RNA, which is essential for the decoding and messaging of genetic information as well as protein synthesis, fatty acids, which make up cell membranes, and amino acids, the building blocks of proteins.
All of the tested organic chemicals, when mixed with water and an additional chemical thought to be found on early Earth, successfully reacted with the DAP. While scientists lack the ability to truly know what early Earth was like, or whether the origin of life involved DAP, these experiments show one feasible path through which life could have developed.