CRC 235 Emergence of Life

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Water cycles in a Hadean CO2 atmosphere drive the evolution of long DNA

A. Ianeselli 2022 Nat. Phys.


Alan Ianeselli, Miguel Atienza, Patrick W. Kudella, Ulrich Gerland, Christof B. Mast and Dieter Braun

Nat. Phys.


Dew is a common form of water that deposits from saturated air on colder surfaces. Although presumably common on primordial Earth, its potential involvement in the origin of life in early replication has not been investigated in detail. Here we report that it can drive the first stages of Darwinian evolution for DNA and RNA, first by periodically denaturing their structures at low temperatures and second by promoting the replication of long strands over short, faster replicating ones. Our experiments mimicked a partially water-filled primordial rock pore in the probable CO2 atmosphere of Hadean Earth. Under heat flow, water continuously evaporated and recondensed as acidic dew droplets that created the humidity, salt and pH cycles that match many prebiotic replication chemistries. In low-salt and low-pH regimes, the strands melted at 30 K below the bulk melting temperature, whereas longer sequences preferentially accumulated at the droplet interface. Under an enzymatic replication to mimic a sped-up RNA world, long sequences of more than 1,000 nucleotides emerged. The replication was biased by the melting conditions of the dew and the initial short ATGC strands evolved into long AT-rich sequences with repetitive and structured nucleotide composition.