Origin of life: Consideration of alternatives to proteins and nucleic acids

Gary L. Nelsestuen

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

21 Scopus citations


Starting with relatively simple, non-hydrolyzable compounds in aqueous solution, entirely spontaneous condensations give rise to polymers that contain purines, pyrimidines, amino acids, coenzymes, lipid components and even phosphate. The presence of certain lipid micelles allows significant product formation at millimolar substrate concentrations. The first step involves formation of a Michael adduct from α-β-unsaturated carbonyl compounds and various nucleophiles. Polymerization of these adducts occurs via sequential Knoevenagel condensations. All reactions take place readily at temperatures below 45°. The polymers can act as macromolecular catalysts as evidenced by hydrolytic activity. The purines and pyrimidines in the polymers appear to be capable of both base pairing and stacking interactions with ribonucleic acids. Specific examples of potential alternatives to base pairing are presented. These results are discussed from the standpoint of the spontaneous development of reproducing molecules. Proteins and nucleic acids may be evolutionary developments which have displaced earlier biopolymers.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)59-72
Number of pages14
JournalJournal of Molecular Evolution
Issue number1
StatePublished - Mar 1 1980


  • Nucleic acid substitutes
  • Origin of life
  • Spontaneous polymerization
  • Synthetic enzymes


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