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Early RNA may have used isolation strategy to defeat useless mutants

Aerosol droplets might have allowed life’s first information molecules to outlive faster replicators

2:00pm, December 8, 2016

TINY BUBBLES  Cooking up Earth’s first life probably required many “pots.” Spatial segregation into different pools or separate droplets might have helped the first self-replicating molecules survive. Later, protocells like those shown here provided more stable compartmentalization.

Long before modern cells were around to house genetic material, tiny water droplets might have protected the first self-replicating molecules from parasitic mutants. New experimental evidence shows that such temporary compartments can help RNA molecules resist takeover by shorter, faster-replicating mutants, researchers report in the Dec. 9 Science.

“We have a lot of theoretical papers that sort of hint at how parasites could have been fought off, but here we have a lab-based study that shows a potential mechanism,” says Niles Lehman, a chemist at Portland State University in Oregon who wasn’t part of the study.

A crucial step in the emergence of life on Earth was the appearance of molecules that could copy themselves. Many scientists believe the first self-replicating molecules might have been rudimentary versions of today’s RNA, which carries instructions to

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