Prebiotic may refer to: Prebiotic (chemistry), inorganic or organic chemistry in the natural environment before the advent of life on Earth. According to Albert Eschenmoser,(1) it is in the field of prebiotic chemistry: the study of the reactions and molecules that led to the emergence of life on earth. Biologists, mathematicians, and astronomers have traditionally weighed in on this problem proportionally more than organic chemists. If prebiotic chemistry is defined as the study of the chemical steps, which lead to the first organisms, a clear-cut definition of “living organism” is needed.


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The latter, though often involving more plausible reactant mixtures, lacks intrinsic chemical control, and results in mixtures so complex that prebiotic chemistry products are obtained in minimal yield interspersed with numerous by-products. What is needed is Goldilocks chemistry: This is because diminutive yields of myriad products leads to system degeneration, as subsequent productive multi-molecular reactions are kinetically disfavoured through dilution raised to the power of the molecularity.

Prebiotic - Wikipedia

The early work perhaps closest to being Goldilocks chemistry is a study of the Strecker multi-component reaction and associated chemistry in a prebiotic context by authors who can also be credited with the first use of the systems chemistry concept in this area [ 3 ].

Finding similar chemistry leading to a broader spectrum of biologically relevant structures—including nucleotides and lipids—has been the goal of our laboratory in recent years [ 45 ]. Our approach has been to study chemical subsystems, and ultimately to assemble these subsystems into a prebiotically plausible overall system with the goal of observing emergent behaviour.

In prebiotic chemistry, as in traditional biochemistry, catalysis has proved to be key to directing reaction kinetics; prebiotic chemistry low-level catalysis by components of mixtures can have a profound effect on reaction outcomes [ 4 ].

If products of subsystems turn out to be catalysts of reactions in other subsystems, a complex temporally controlled series of reactions can ensue in the complete system. Reactions need not occur in cycles for such control, though cycles can provide a mechanism for molecular auto- amplification and control [ 6 ].

Prebiotic chemistry: a new modus operandi

The chemical behaviour of the components of such a system prebiotic chemistry appear to be choreographed, but it is crucial to recognize that the behaviour is implicit in the structures of the input reagents prebiotic chemistry the defined conditions through the laws of chemistry. The behaviour of the system can also be influenced by variation in reaction conditions over time.

This is an important point in the prebiotic chemistry field because too often it has been assumed that only fixed prebiotic chemistry prevailing over a long time should be considered for prebiotic synthesis.

Temperature, humidity and light flux must have varied on the early Earth, and so it is perfectly reasonable to invoke variations in conditions over the course of a prebiotic systems chemistry experiment. One is not seeking to recreate exactly what happened on early Earth, but to show what is plausible.

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Given the huge range of prebiotic chemistry conditions, and sequences of conditions, we caution against the tendency to rigidly invoke one set or sequence of conditions, and then to limit the chemistry one explores to only that which is possible under prebiotic chemistry chosen conditions.

What seems a much better approach is to explore all sorts of different geochemically plausible sequences of conditions in an attempt to elucidate scenarios in which chemistry giving all the products needed for life takes place.


If one set, range, or sequence of conditions is thereby uncovered that gives all the products, then it is akin to triangulation in navigation wherein prebiotic chemistry pointers provide better evidence than a single pointer to define the relevant chemical space.

The sequence of reaction conditions—mild heating in water, followed by evaporation, dry state heating, rehydration and UV irradiation—under which this synthesis proceeds serves as a starting point in our triangulation strategy to find conditions for an overall systems chemistry synthesis of multiple prebiotic target molecules.

It may be that the challenge of finding funding for such an esoteric problem comes easier to established scientists in a world increasingly focused on practical applications. But a desire prebiotic chemistry explore this field also speaks to the uniquely reflective mindset required to prebiotic chemistry the greatest retrosynthetic analysis of all, leading us from modern enzymes and genetic polymers back to the etiology of biomolecules.

The Future of Prebiotic Chemistry

A glimpse into this kind of thinking is provided in a recent Nature Chemistry paper 2 by Adam J. Coggins and Matthew W. Powner, prebiotic chemistry with a Nature Chemistry paper 3 by John D.

Probing plausible prebiotic chemistry requires an extraordinary combination of outlook and expertise that prebiotic chemistry subtly from that employed in other areas of organic synthesis. For example, rather than seeking to develop novel synthetic methodologies and complex molecular architectures, origin-of-life researchers must look to unlock the secrets of ancient and simple processes that might have been available to construct the building blocks of life in a primordial world.