The chemical composition of the primordial ooze that many scientists believe life first formed in billions of years ago might have more in common with a bottle of wine than previously thought.
They both contain sulfites.
One of the most popular theories for how life got started on Earth revolves around chemicals mixing in small, warm ponds. And one pathway to making RNA in a shallow pool relies on hydrogen sulfide and cyanide. But it was unclear until now where those chemicals could have come from and if they would have been able to mix with water well enough to be useful.
So Ranjan decided to combine geological models of the early Earth’s volcanic activity with sulfur dioxide dissolution constants from the winemaking industry to come up with plausible numbers for the concentrations of various sulfidic compounds on the primordial Earth. He found that there was likely lots of hydrogen sulfide (HS−) and sulfites (HSO3−, SO32−) in in the air, but that only the sulfites would dissolve well enough in water to be available to pre-biotic chemistry. So now it’s back to drawing board and the lab bench to find a pathway to life through sulfites instead of hydrogen sulfide.
Understanding how life started on Earth is a complicated puzzle, with thousands of possible compounds and environmental conditions interacting in complex ways. But open-minded scientists like Ranjan, by drawing on expertise from other fields (including winemaking in this case!) are able to get closer to an answer about our origins.
Luckily, the study is open access, so you can read it in it’s entirety here: https://www.liebertpub.com/doi/10.1089/ast.2017.1770
But if press releases are more your style, Jennifer Chu in MIT’s News Office has published a great one: http://news.mit.edu/2018/earths-first-biological-molecules-0409