The Fountain of Life: Scientists Uncover the “Chemistry Behind the Origin of Life”

Water Drop

Chemists discover a mechanism for peptide-forming reactions to occur in water, which leads to proteins and so to life on Earth. It could also lead to the faster development of drugs to treat humanity’s most debilitating diseases.

Water Droplets Hold the Secret Ingredient for Building Life

Chemists uncover key to early Earth chemistry, which could unlock paths to speed up chemical synthesis for drug discovery.

Purdue University chemists have discovered a mechanism for peptide-forming reactions to occur in water — something that has baffled scientists for decades.

“This is essentially the chemistry behind the origin of life,” said Graham Cooks. He is the Henry Bohn Hass Distinguished Professor of Analytical Chemistry in Purdue’s College of Science. “This is the first demonstration that primordial molecules, simple amino acids, spontaneously form peptides, the building blocks of life, in droplets of pure water. This is a dramatic discovery.”

“This is essentially the chemistry behind the origin of life.” — Graham Cooks

This water-based chemistry, which leads to proteins and ultimately to life on Earth, could also lead to the faster development of medicines to treat humanity’s most debilitating diseases. The team’s discovery was published today (October 3, 2022) in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Scientists have theorized for decades that life on Earth began in the oceans. However, the chemistry behind this remained an enigma. Raw amino acids — something that meteorites delivered to early Earth daily — can react and latch together to form peptides. These are the building blocks of proteins and, eventually, life. Strangely, the process requires the loss of a water molecule, which seems exceedingly improbable in a wet, aqueous, or oceanic environment. For life to form, it required water. However, it also needed space away from the water.

Cooks, an expert in mass spectrometry and early Earth chemistry, and his research team have uncovered the answer to the riddle: “Water isn’t wet everywhere.” On the margins, where the water droplet meets the atmosphere, extremely quick reactions can take place, transforming abiotic amino acids into the building blocks of life. Therefore, fertile landscapes for life’s potential evolution were in places where sea spray flies into the air and waves pound the land, or where fresh water burbles down a slope.

“This is the first demonstration that primordial molecules, simple amino acids, spontaneously form peptides, the building blocks of life, in droplets of pure water. This is a dramatic discovery.” — Graham Cooks

The chemists have been using mass spectrometers to examine chemical reactions in droplets containing water for more than 10 years.

“The rates of reactions in droplets are anywhere from a hundred to a million times faster than the same chemicals reacting in bulk solution,” Cooks said.

The swift rates of these reactions make catalysts unnecessary, speeding up the reactions and, in the case of early Earth chemistry, making the evolution of life possible. Decades of scientific investigation have been focused on figuring out how this mechanism works. The secret of how life emerged on Earth can help scientists better understand why it happened and guide their search for life on other planets, or even moons.

Understanding how amino acids built themselves up into proteins and, eventually, life forms revolutionizes scientists’ understanding of chemical synthesis. That same chemistry may potentially help synthetic chemists identify and create novel medications and therapeutic treatments for illnesses by accelerating key processes.

“If you walk through an academic campus at night, the buildings with the lights on are where synthetic chemists are working,” Cooks said. “Their experiments are so slow that they run for days or weeks at a time. This isn’t necessary, and using droplet chemistry, we have built an apparatus, which is being used at Purdue now, to speed up the synthesis of novel chemicals and potential new drugs.”

Reference: “Aqueous microdroplets enable abiotic synthesis and chain extension of unique peptide isomers from free amino acids” by Dylan T. Holden, Nicolás M. Morato and R. Graham Cooks, 3 October 2022, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
DOI: 10.1073/pnas.2212642119

44 Comments on "The Fountain of Life: Scientists Uncover the “Chemistry Behind the Origin of Life”"

  1. I’m sure that has been the center of life’s origin in the world’s science research and has been factual since 1920s

  2. Earlier the Better | October 4, 2022 at 4:59 am | Reply

    Two Great achievements this year: 1) Synthetic Embryo in Biology & 2) Now, On Life’s Origin in Chemistry ! Science will never be the same here afterwards. Will be Galloping !

  3. I’ll give you ‘building blocks’, and I’ll even grant the ability for them to form chains, but there is nothing but random chance that determines the ORDER in which they link. That makes it just a math problem to see if the precise order needed to make a functional protein is feasibility possible. It isn’t. And then there is still the problem of how to fold it correctly in order to work.

    “ The Fountain of Life: Scientists Uncover the “Chemistry Behind the Origin of Life”

    I have read this same headline applied to so many ‘breakthrough discoveries’ during my lifetime that it has become a joke.

  4. BibhutibhusanPatel | October 4, 2022 at 10:48 am | Reply

    Automaation of any lifefom arises when sense of touch and temperature perception evolved is the life.Consciousness and memory then comes to play their role alongwith the other senses.

  5. Go science! Now find some proof on Enceladus! Too bad that will be decades before they bother

  6. A physiologist | October 4, 2022 at 1:17 pm | Reply

    This is the usual overhyped science fiction. First there is no evidence of amino acid rich oceans or fresh water pools. Secondly there are about 2 million theoretically possible amino acids of which a subset of twenty in laevo form only are used in life. No early life scénario exists for obtaining such a precise subset in a tightly confined area. The laboratory manipulation of amino acids under rigorous conscious control is entirely different.

  7. Life had originated in water when the earth was fully covered by water many millions of years ago so said by Buddha 2600 yrs ago.

  8. I think some people may not understand what order can emerge from billions of years of seemingly random events.

  9. Poop & pee are friends forever

  10. Oh is that a fact ? Well then the scientists who are claiming this should have no problem whipping up life from non living matter then. Good luck with that . You do not seem to understand stop publishing articles claiming miracles you cannot produce

  11. Anthony McGonigle | October 5, 2022 at 2:57 am | Reply

    I think it’s just a maths problem too and obviously it’s statistically more probable that a supreme universal intelligence created life and then sent his son to become human to save us from sin and death so we can live forever in his kingdom. That’s obviously what happened and these people who think the non random accumulation of natural selection acting upon random mutations to gradually build up into complex life forms over vast timescales are just unrealistic and unscientific and mathematically illiterate. And Santa is real as well so leave me alone!

  12. I’m gonna say asteroid impact shoot up dust causing global volcanic eruptions, all of it get sucked up into a hurricane and struck with lightning over and over. Life rains down

  13. It just goes to show y’all that life as we know it all started with Goddess Ocean and surfing a few waves. 😎🤙

  14. Water/Air, Fire, Earth, Metal,and Wood all are alive and share 1 consciousness of infinite intelligence.

  15. Water/Air, Fire, Earth, Metal,and Wood all are alive and share 1 consciousness of infinite intelligence.

  16. Wrong. If this was true, then why is there only one genesis to occur in the 4 billion years this water world has been here. Every plant animal and bacteria have evolved from the same organism. A single cell who’s DNA traits can be found in every living cell on earth today. This means all life on earth came from the same biogenesis. If this “amino acid & bubbles” theory were correct, then we should see a 2nd genises, a 3rd and so forth… There should have been thousands of genesises by now if that theory was correct. But there has only been once we see for life to sprout on Earth, even though it is full of water, and bubbly swamps, and springs, and stuff, you know etc, for billions of years now. So although water is necessary to sustain all life on Earth, water/water bubbles, is obviously not a reliable explanation for the happening of the “singular essence” of biogenesis on Earth.

  17. Water, Air, Fire, Earth, Metal, all are alive and share 1 consciousness of infinite intelligence of the 1 infinite creator. Sorry science..

  18. What’s with the comment section here. If you don’t like new scientific discoveries then go to tiktok or something. Or are you just here as grand defenders of your own belief systems?
    This is a mindblowing new discovery but i guess alot of people lack common sense, imagination and vision. What a loss.

  19. Without the Creator in the equation you have nothing.

  20. Hats of to the scientists, but They can never explain how life is imparted, they only beat around the bush so far.

  21. So many people with such a limited understanding of Science. this is all nonsense.

  22. This is fine and dandy but FUNCTIONING proteins, specifically enzymes,which are necessary for life, in my humble opinion are extremely more likely intelligently designed than resulting from random collisions of amino acids at air-water interfaces.

  23. How do you get homochirallty out of this process?

  24. I was surprised by the hostility some of the comments about this article either citing disappointment with the fact that science is not created artificial life or downplaying the significance of the findings and discoveries cited in the article. Of course there’s a failure of imagination of billion years of the statistical possibilities coming together to find the right combination of amino acids chemicals and processes that could create a primitive reproducing organism. And that tge building blocks of life are quite common in the universe.And of course there’s a possibility that some people may be offended as they prefer to believe in an intelligent design and therefore any indication of spontaneous generation of living organisms might be against their beliefs. One thing we do know is that we are in existence and we do know that there are primitive organisms that illustrate the first steps of life so obviously a mechanism did exist. So putting aside religion it will be just a matter of time till it is figured out how the first organisms evolved.

  25. So that’s where covid came from .. not the Chinese market

  26. Note 21… -Well said !

  27. Click bait.

    @David There were not billions of years available for the emergence of 1st life. Current thought is earth formed 4.5Gya, heavy bombardment ended 3.9Gya, life arises 3.8Gya. It’s been described as nearly instantaneous in geologic terms. Amino acids, even protein chains, are a far cry from the first cell. Synthetic chemists know this and don’t go around saying a couple proteins hooked up at a foam party and had a baby cell.

  28. Lol. What a farce. So life…..accidentally happened becuz peptides formed, or may have? These self-deceived clowns call that a breakthrough?

  29. … “This is essentially the chemistry behind the origin of life,”… So, we are going to be able to make life in a petri dish!
    … Okay, now we are like The Gods, but not…

  30. “Scientists Uncover the “Chemistry Behind the Origin of Life””

    They discovered the chemistry behind the “ORIGIN” of life? No they didn’t.

    That would be like saying that fire is the chemistry behind the “ORIGIN” of Elon Musk’s SpaceX rockets. Or that the electrochemical reaction in your car’s battery is the “ORIGIN” of the battery.

    Just because a chemical reaction is a component of a highly organized system, doesn’t mean that that highly organized system originated because of that chemical reaction.

    That is fundamentally flawed logic.

  31. Dr Dzulkhaini hj Husain | October 6, 2022 at 3:56 am | Reply

    Just add to our reading list the 1444 year old Quran, ‘hated’ in the West and East. Water exist in huge amounts in the furthermost Heavens (Verse 11:7) and Water is the foundation of all units of Creations (Verse 21:30). Read and improve our eternal search
    Dr Dzulkhaini hj Husain

  32. Oh please. How many times do we get a headline like “Origin of life has been solved!” or “The secret of life’s beginning has been discovered!” – There are so many incomplete aspects to this whole thing. Asteroids have not shown us quite a number of key pre-cursors needed (amino acids, etc.). Homochirality is not solved here. The ribose problem is not solved here. Well, I could go on with more. This over-selling is NOT good for the cause of science. I’m tired of explaining to my students why it is not true that scientists have made a man-made cell (as once headlined).

  33. So… where does this lead us?
    Was it, the chicken or the egg?

  34. Rabbi B Schlanger | October 6, 2022 at 12:16 pm | Reply

    Why do those who call themselves “scientists” not recognize God – in the creation? Do they ever look at a single flower in wonder Sekong Who made this and billions more creation? God does not need more Thani a single moment to create, not billions of years. Nothing is random but by Godly design. Itvhappened 5783 years ago and is being recreated ever since second by second.

  35. How far do we need to go before we can simply say: God does not need to exist. It seems we do try too hard to be able to say this. The most logical and clear basis for life is squarely in front of our eyes on a daily basis in the world around us and yet we spend countless years of life and scientific fervor trying to prove it cannot possibly be true. No one can know what happened millenia before we walked the earth but anyone can see intelligent design behind creation.

  36. so basically, organic compounds formed. Through random chance, millions of base pairs of nucleic acids eventually formed into strands of DNA that code for simple forms of life with enormously complex processes made up of folded proteins and thousands of other molecules and poly you-name-its, along with the ability to synthesize and reproductive etc.

    Thinking if I placed 50,000 pieces of wood, 1,000,000 nails, 30,000 screws, various pieces of pipe, wire, switches, plugs, circuit breakers, faucets, sinks, stove, fridge, washer and dryer…all in pieces, 20,000 brick, sand, Portland, gravel, various colors and solvents, handles, and door lock mechanisms… all in pieces, light fixtures, etc… and dropped them from a plane at 50,000 ft a trillion times, they would form a fully built house with functional appliances, fixtures, electrical, HVAC and other systems with glass windows etc.

    Seems like a real stretch. Even a simple log cabin is a stretch. lets think through this random thought again… and apply the second law of thermodynamics: Left unchecked disorder increases over time. Energy disperses, and systems dissolve into chaos.

    I find it takes more faith to believe that than to believe in a God.

  37. Thanks for the information you shared. Loved the way you explained everything in this blog.

  38. Why are we always doing research for drug discovery and not for CURES?

  39. I think I’m a bit smarter for having read this article, but then more so dumber for having read these mostly idiotic comments 🙁

  40. Did any of you KNOW-IT-ALLS go and look at the article and who supported their research? Clearly not. First of all, they were suggesting their findings were true..NOT SAYING IT IS A was in a TEST environment as clearly stated so again they can suggest their findings would have been possible. They are doing research and looking for plausible conclusions. It’s exciting and other discoveries may happen along the way. Take a look at the project supporters.. hardly organizations to look down your nose at or to think you know better than them. I am Canadian but I hear Standford and the US Air Force are well recognized and trusted for their outcomes in the USA. I wouldn’t think they give out research money in support of a 10yr project for impossible to be true results, do you? Just read these papers with hope and an open mind. I know the world is negative and I often get caught up on it too but research findings like this are stepping stones to new potentials. These people dedicated themselves for 10 years so why the heck would they present a report to the world for people less qualified to rip apart?
    If you claim to be a scientist and dont understand “fact” from Theory/plausible results of an experiment then I suggest you go back to school and throw away your bubblegum machine degree.
    The supporters:
    This work was supported by the NSF (Grant CHE-1905087), the Multi-University Research Initiative (MURI) of the Air Force Office of Scientific Research (FA9550-21-1-0170) via Stanford University (sub-award 62741613-204669), and Waters Corporation (Grant 40002775). D.T.H. acknowledges support from the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship (DGE-1842166). N.M.M. acknowledges support from the Eastman Summer Fellowship in Analytical Chemistry and the American Chemical Society Division of Analytical Chemistry Graduate Fellowship sponsored by Agilent Technologies.

  41. Thanks to Tracy above for being the only one so far to appeal to actual science to once again debunk ridiculous claims. This story sounds like nothing more than the 1953 Urey-Miller nonsense all over again.

  42. Ranasingha Perera | October 11, 2022 at 4:16 am | Reply

    It’s good to conduct experiments to find out our formation. So far our formation is a mystery. It is sad people believe in myths. Cycle of rebirth and God’s creation.

  43. Wow, did it just take a scientist to figure out what’s in the liquid that is a major constituent of all living matter? Good grief.

  44. Can’t we all just get along!

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