How is it that a complex organism evolves from a pile of dead matter? How can lifeless materials become organic molecules that are the bricks of animals and plants? Scientists have been trying to answer these questions for ages. Researchers at the Max Planck Institut für Kohlenforschung have now disclosed the secret of a reaction that has to do with the synthesis of complex organic matter before the origin of life.
Since the 1960's it has been well known that when concentrated hydrogen cyanide (HCN) is irradiated by UV light, it forms an imidazole intermediate that is a key substance for synthesis of nucleobases and nucleotides in abiotic environment. "As I said before, this reaction has nothing to do with heat," says Barbatti. The transformation works in a cold environment, as in comets and in terrestrial ices, where spontaneous HCN polymerization is most expected to occur.