In New Zealand, a group of scientists has successfully created RNA-like molecules in test tubes by dipping them into the geothermal hot springs known as Hell’s Gate. In order to understand and recreate life’s origins, they are trying to replicate the basic building blocks of life and study how those smaller molecules interact with one another.
Ribonucleic acid, more commonly known as RNA, is found in all living cells and acts as a messenger which carries instructions regarding the processing of proteins. Deoxyribonucleic acid, or DNA, which functions as the carrier of our genetic info, works in conjunction with RNA and amino acids, or fatty acids, to generate life. These polymer chains are built from smaller molecules such as nucleotides.
David Deamer and his colleague Dr. Bruce Damer, from the University of California, Santa Cruz, have determined that hot springs provide the ideal conditions to help create these lipids. Repeated cycles of drying and rehydration along with the temperatures of 80 to 90°C are ideal for forming the protocells, or spherical groupings of lipids that scientists are still trying to understand.
Hell’s Gate also known as Tikitere, located near Rotorua, New Zealand, provided a natural yet controlled location for the scientists to conduct their research outside of the lab. This geothermal area with acidic hot springs was described by Damer as, “like a chemistry experiment that nature is carrying out.”
In order to try and reproduce these essential building blocks of life, Damer created a mixture of amino acids, glyceride and two components of RNA. Placing this mixture into test tubes, he then placed them into the water of the hot springs in order to heat the concoction. Once the mixture had dried out, he used water from a nearby pool that had a pH level of 1.5. Though this water had been previously filtered to remove any contaminants or microorganisms, it was needed to imitate the water that would erupt from geysers. By doing this manually, it allowed the scientists to better control the time span.
The experiment was considered successful because RNA-like particles were found within a film that formed on the surface of the tubes. However, some scientists are still skeptical. John Sutherland from the Laboratory of Molecular Chemistry in Cambridge, UK, states that because the molecules were RNA-like instead of being exact RNA, that the replication was unsuccessful and therefore is not pertinent to origins-of-life chemistry.
Astrobiology, a popular peer-reviewed journal regarding the topics of life’s origins and evolution as well as interplanetary exploration and lab research, will publish the results of this experiment in the near future. It was the first time that the experiment had been successfully executed outside of the lab. While the testing has provided interesting information, scientists agree that further research and experimentation is needed.