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Chem Scr. 1986;26B:5-11.

Current status of the prebiotic synthesis of small molecules.

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Department of Chemistry, University of California, San Diego, La Jolla 92093, USA.
U CA San Diego, La Jolla


The prebiotic synthesis of small molecules has been accomplished using various simulated atmospheres with CH4, N2, and NH3, H2O being the most effective, but H2, CO, N2, H2O and H2, CO2, N2, H2O also give good yields of organic compounds provided H2/CO > 1 and H2/CO2 > 2. The spark discharge is a very effective source of energy in such experiments, because it is a good source of HCN. Ultraviolet light would also have been important on the primitive earth. Almost all prebiotic amino acids are made by the hydrolysis of an amino nitrile formed from an aldehyde, NH3 and HCN (Strecker synthesis). There are reasonable prebiotic syntheses worked out for the twenty amino acids that occur in proteins, with the exception of lysine, arginine and histidine. The purines are derived from the polymerization of HCN, and the precursor of the pyrimidines is cyanoacetylene. The sugars (including ribose), would have been formed from the base catalyzed polymerization of formaldehyde. There is no good prebiotic synthesis of straight chain fatty acids. Of the vitamin coenzymes, only nicotinic acid has been synthesized under prebiotic conditions. Many of the molecules that are produced in these simulated primitive earth experiments are found in a group of meteorites that contain organic compounds, called the carbonaceous chondrites. Since such prebiotic syntheses took place on the parent body of the carbonaceous chondrites, generally thought to be an asteroid, it is plausible, but not proved, that such syntheses took place on the primitive earth, and that the first living organisms were formed out of these compounds.

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