The Right Kind of Mess

Scientists studying how life arose from the primordial soup have been too eager to clean up the clutter.

Four billion years ago, the prebiotic Earth was a messy place, a chaotic mélange of diverse starting materials. Even so, certain key molecules still somehow managed to emerge from that chemical mayhem—RNA, DNA and proteins among them. But in the quest to understand how that happened, according to Ramanarayanan Krishnamurthy, a chemist at the Scripps Research Institute in California, researchers have been so myopic in their focus on reactions that generate molecules relevant to the planet’s current inhabitants that they’ve overlooked other possibilities.

“They are trying to impose biology today on prebiotic chemistry,” he said. “But trying to make the final product right from the raw material—it misleads us.”

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