In this mini-review we present some experimental approaches to the important issue in the origin of life, namely the origin of nucleic acids and proteins with specific and functional sequences. The formation of macromolecules on prebiotic Earth faces practical and conceptual difficulties. From the chemical viewpoint, macromolecules are formed by chemical pathways leading to the condensation of building blocks (amino acids, or nucleotides) in long-chain copolymers (proteins and nucleic acids, respectively). The second difficulty deals with a conceptual problem, namely with the emergence of specific sequences among a vast array of possible ones, the huge "sequence space", leading to the question "why these macromolecules, and not the others?" We have recently addressed these questions by using a chemical synthetic biology approach. In particular, we have tested the catalytic activity of small peptides, like Ser-His, with respect to peptide- and nucleotides-condensation, as a realistic model of primitive organocatalysis. We have also set up a strategy for exploring the sequence space of random proteins and RNAs (the so-called "never born biopolymer" project) with respect to the production of folded structures. Being still far from solved, the main aspects of these "open questions" are discussed here, by commenting on recent results obtained in our groups and by providing a unifying view on the problem and possible solutions. In particular, we propose a general scenario for macromolecule formation via fragment-condensation, as a scheme for the emergence of specific sequences based on molecular growth and selection.
Journal review article
Computational and Structural Biotechnology Journal, 2014, Vol 9, Issue 14