, Volume 41, Issue 6, pp 693-702

Are polyphosphates or phosphate esters prebiotic reagents?

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Abstract

It is widely held that there was a phosphate compound in prebiotic chemistry that played the role of adenosine triphosphate and that the first living organisms had ribose-phosphate in the backbone of their genetic material. However, there are no known efficient prebiotic synthesis of high-energy phosphates or phosphate esters. We review the occurrence of phosphates in Nature, the efficiency of the volcanic synthesis of P4O10, the efficiency of polyphosphate synthesis by heating phosphate minerals under geological conditions, and the use of high-energy organic compounds such as cyanamide or hydrogen cyanide. These are shown to be inefficient processes especially when the hydrolysis of the polyphosphates is taken into account. For example, if a whole atmosphere of methane or carbon monoxide were converted to cyanide which somehow synthesized polyphosphates quantitatively, the polyphosphate concentration in the ocean would still have been insignificant. We also attempted to find more efficient high-energy polymerizing agents by spark discharge syntheses, but without success. There may still be undiscovered robust prebiotic syntheses of polyphosphates, or mechanisms for concentrating them, but we conclude that phosphate esters may not have been constituents of the first genetic material. Phosphoanhydrides are also unlikely as prebiotic energy sources.

Correspondence to: S.L. Miller