It sounds odd, but cyanide may have been a key ingredient in the origins of life.
That’s the finding of graduate student Zoe Todd and Dimitar Sasselov, the Phillips Professor of Astronomy and director of the Harvard Origins of Life Initiative, who showed that a mixture of cyanide and copper, when irradiated with UV light, could have produced simple sugars that formed the building blocks of life on early Earth. The study is described in a paper in the Royal Society of Chemistry.
“One story for the origin of life is what we call the RNA world,” Todd said. “In order to make something like an RNA nucleotide, you need these sugars. This shows that process was plausible on the early Earth.”
A key step in showing that the hypothesis was plausible came in 2012, when a team of scientists in the U.K. demonstrated that the system could produce simple sugars such as glycolaldehyde and glyceraldehyde.
Though groundbreaking, those tests were performed under ideal conditions — with relatively high concentrations of both cyanide and copper, and powerful lamps that generated high-energy, 254-nanometer wavelength light.
“You can get that wavelength with a simple mercury-emission lamp,” Todd said. “They used them because they’re a cheap, easy, powerful light source.”
But past work from Sasselov’s group had shown that early Earth would have experienced a range of wavelengths shorter than typical on the planet’s surface today, so Todd and Sasselov set out to test the system under those conditions.