The purine world: experimental investigations into the prebiotic synthesis of purine nucleobases and intercalation of homopurine DNA duplexes
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Formamide is a solvent of great interest to prebiotic chemists because it is liquid over a wide range, it is less volatile than either water or HCN, and it possesses a versatile reactivity. When formamide is heated in the presence of minerals or inorganic catalysts, a variety of products including purine nucleobases are generated. Irradiation of formamide reaction solutions with ultraviolet light increases the yield and diversity of products, and eliminates the need for a mineral catalyst. We have also performed formamide reactions in the presence of pyrite, a mineral which is likely to have been available on the primordial Earth, under a variety of atmospheric conditions. Our results indicate the greatest yield and diversity of products result from the combination of a pyrite mineral catalyst, heat, UV irradiation, and a carbon dioxide atmosphere. Purine nucleobases are simple to synthesize in model reactions and they stack well in aqueous solution; it has been hypothesized that the first nucleic acids were composed of only purine bases, and that water-soluble, cationic, aromatic molecules with large stacking surfaces (“”molecular midwives””) may have aided the assembly of the earliest nucleic acid analogs. We have characterized the interactions of various intercalators with a standard DNA duplex as well as with an antiparallel homopurine DNA duplex and have determined that molecules which possess four or more rings and a curved shape interact selectively with all-purine DNA; such molecules can serve as models for putative prebiotic midwives.