McMaster Researchers Win Prize For Exploring Origins of Life on Earth

Ralph Pudritz, Physics & Astronomy, and M.Sc. student at the time, Ben K.D. Pearce, have received the prestigious Cozzarelli Prize from the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science (PNAS) for their ground-breaking paper, “Origin of the RNA world: The fate of nucleobases in warm little ponds.”  Working with researchers from Germany, the paper explored meteorites and their role in delivering the essential biomolecules necessary for the start of life on Earth.

The team results suggests that the molecules making up first life appeared 4.2 billion years ago when meteorites splashed down and leached molecules, called nucleobases, into warm little ponds. The ponds were almost ideal locations for chemical reactions to occur, creating the conditions needed to form RNA polymers, the first genetic material and found in all life today.

Though the concept of “warm little ponds” as an environment for first life is not new, Pearce and Pudritz, along with co-authors Dmitry A. Semenov and Thomas K. Henning, are the first to show its plausibility through calculations based on exhaustive research that drew on data from a number of scientific disciplines. Their calculations suggest that wet and dry cycles bonded basic molecular building blocks in the ponds’ nutrient-rich broth into self-replicating RNA molecules that constituted the first genetic code for life on the planet.

“Having our paper selected for the Cozzarelli Prize feels amazing – it’s been such a humbling experience and is very unexpected,” says Pearce.

“This is still sinking in,” says Pudritz. “The NAS [National Academy of Science] is one of the most prestigious scientific bodies in the world and it’s a great honour to receive this prize and to be recognized by one’s peers. Also, I’m particularly pleased that Ben has been recognized in this way so early in his career.” Both are also members of the Origins Institute.

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