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Orig Life Evol Biosph. 2005 Apr;35(2):79-90.

An investigation of prebiotic purine synthesis from the hydrolysis of HCN polymers.

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Department of Chemistry, and Biochemistry, University of California, San Diego, La Jolla, CA, USA.


The polymerization of concentrated NH4CN solutions has been studied at various temperatures and ammonia concentrations. The products of the oligomerization of ammonium cyanide include adenine and guanine, as well as trace amounts of 2,6-diaminopurine. Our results indicate that the adenine yield is not strongly dependent on temperature. Guanine is produced in lower yield. The original studies by OrĂ³ and Kimball (1961) showed that the 6 N HCl hydrolysis of the NH4CN polymerization supernatant greatly increased the adenine yield. However, this hydrolysis also decomposes adenine and other purines. Therefore, we have measured the yields from an NH4CN polymerization as a function of hydrolysis time, and found that shorter hydrolytic periods give higher yields of adenine. We have also investigated the hydrolysis of the supernatant at pH 8, which is a more reasonable model of primitive oceanic conditions, and found that the adenine yield is comparable to that obtained with acid hydrolysis (approximately 0.1%). The yield of adenine does not decline at longer hydrolysis times because of the greater stability of adenine at pH 8. The insoluble black polymer formed from NH4CN has been analyzed by both acid and neutral hydrolysis. In both cases adenine yields of approximately 0.05% were obtained. This suggests that the polymer may have been as important a prebiotic source of purines as the usually analyzed supernatant.

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