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Nov 06, 2013 10:11 AM EST

Clay Likely Facilitated the Formation of Cells and the Evolution of Life on Earth


Clay may have been vital to kick starting life on Earth by hosting the complex biochemicals that make it possible, according to new research.

Biological engineers from Cornell University found in simulated ancient seawater, clay formed a hydrogel, which acted as a sponge in absorbing and storing tiny molecules of liquid.

Over billions of years, the researchers believe, those molecules could have evolved into proteins, DNA and cells. In essence, the molecules stored in clay could very well have naturally evolved into the building blocks of life.

"We propose that in early geological history clay hydrogel provided a confinement function for biomolecules and biochemical reactions," Dan Luo, professor of biological and environmental engineering and a member of the Kavli Institute at Cornell for Nanoscale Science, said in a press release.

To test their theory, the group recreated protein synthesis in a clay hydrogel by filling it themselves with DNA, amino acids, enzymes and other bits and pieces of a cell. The researchers found that clay is an easy-to-obtain and highly effective way to produce proteins, which could come in handy in drug manufacturing.

Apart from this modern and practical use, the research team believes they could have figured out how biomolecules would have evolved. Previous research suggested amino acids and other biomolecules were formed in the vast ancient oceans. Luo and his team's clay explanation may provide a plausible way for how these various pieces came together to form cells.

Clay is a promising theory because biomolecules tend to attach themselves to its surface. Hydrogels also act like cytoplasm, the inside of a cell, protecting its contents from outside factors. In other words, Clay provides an ideal environment for the formation of cells.

The research team are set to have their study published in the online edition of the journal Scientific Reports Nov. 7.

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