The Origins of Life/Information

Now you will know I’m a little loonie.

In a former life I spent a lot of time studying chemistry and mathematics and I have for some time been thinking about molecules and information. In particular, I’ve been puzzling over the question of how information carrying molecules like RNA and DNA came into existence and how they manage to “code” for more information than they “contain.” And I’ve been recently urging the idea of catalysis as a metaphor for infrastructure on my partner.

And so I was quite excited to read Nicholas Wade’s report in this morning’s Times (“Chemist Shows How RNA Can Be the Starting Point for Life“) on the work of John D. Sutherland and colleagues at the University of Manchester. The abstract of their article in Nature this week starts out like this:

At some stage in the origin of life, an informational polymer must have arisen by purely chemical means.

They go on to describe how molecules that could be present in a pre-biotic “warm pond” — cyanamide, cyanoacetylene, glycolaldehyde, glyceraldehyde and inorganic phosphate — can react to form the building blocks of RNA. (The chemistry of the reaction is shown in a nice series of graphics here.)

Can I say something really clever about what this really has to do with the sociology of information? No. But stay tuned. I can connect back to that comment about infrastructure and catalysis, though. The authors of the article note that the presence of phosphate not as an reactant but earlier in the process:

its presence from the start is essential as it controls three reactions in the earlier stages by acting as a general acid/base catalyst, a nucleophilic catalyst, a pH buffer and a chemical buffer.

In other words, its presence changes the environment, makes possible reactions that energetics would otherwise forbid or discourage. That seems like an interesting definition for infrastructure.

Author: Dan Ryan

I'm currently an Academic Program Director at I've been a professor at University of Toronto, University of Southern California, and Mills College teaching things like human centered design, computational thinking, modeling for policy sciences, and social theory. I'm driven by the desire to figure out how to teach twice as many twice as well twice as easily.

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