chemical evolutionHow life began is arguably one of the most intriguing questions of our time. The scientific objective of the Center for Chemical Evolution is to demonstrate small molecules within a model inventory of prebiotic chemistry can self-assemble into polymers that resemble RNA and proteins.

Our ability to search for the chemical origin of life is much more advanced from the time when many “classic” origins of life experiments were carried out. Simple paper chromatography was previously used for the identification of amino acids in model prebiotic reactions. Advances in analytical techniques such as GC, MS, HPLC, and NMR provide far more detailed analyses of the complex chemical mixtures that result from model prebiotic reactions, including the identification of unexpected products. Modifications to these analytical techniques allow better assessment and quantification of the formation of products produced at very low concentrations under unique circumstances, such as on the surface of minerals, in the presence of UV light or under day/night cycling conditions. Identification of possible precursor molecules for the biological molecules we know today, such as sugars, nucleobases and amino acids, could lead us to a better understanding of how biomacromolecules evolved.

Our expanding knowledge of the prebiotic chemical inventory and our greater appreciation for the importance of self-assembly create a powerful combination for making significant advances in the field of origin of life. Finding molecules with the ability to self-assemble into RNA- or protein-like polymers, regardless of whether these can be proven to be the ancestors, would undoubtedly create considerable excitement among scientists and the general public, represent a major advancement in the field of molecular self-assembly, and prove abundantly useful to synthetic chemists.

The Center for Chemical Evolution is a Center for Chemical Innovation 

The Centers for Chemical Innovation (CCI) Program supports research centers focused on major, long-term fundamental chemical research challenges. CCIs integrate research, innovation, education, and informal science communication; they include a plan to broaden the participation of underrepresented groups. Each CCI focuses on a specific grand challenge in chemistry and gathers researchers from across the country to address that challenge. Currently, there are nine fully funded CCIs.

We are grateful for support from the National Science Foundation (NSF) and NASA under CHE-1504217