Whitesides Research

Whitesides Group Research

The Chemical Origin of Life

The Whitesides group is interested in fundamental questions related to the chemical origin of life. What sources of free energy were available to drive the earliest proto-biochemical reactions? How was information first encoded? We believe that the prebiotic storage of energy and information are two of the most fascinating mysteries in science.

Prebiotic Energetics

We are interested in exploring plausible mechanisms for the conversion and storage of free energy that were essential for the chemical origins of life. The ubiquity of concentration gradients in biology - for example, the intra- and extracellular concentration of potassium and sodium - represents one possible reservoir of free energy. How did these gradients arise and how can they be harnessed to power the machinery of life?

Phosphoanhydride bonds, such as those found in ATP and inorganic polyphosphate, are the energetic currency of modern biology. We, and others, believe that the accumulation of phosphoanhydride bonds was an important step that probably occurred early in the development of chemical systems for storing energy. The formation of polyphosphates from salts of inorganic phosphate and organic compounds - such as those that were likely to have been present on the early earth - represents a "simple" route to molecules capable of storing free energy.

Prebiotic Mechanisms for Storing Information

Our interest in phosphates extends beyond energy, and includes chemical systems for storing information. We share a working hypothesis with others that DNA was probably not among the first molecules used in nature to store information. In this area, we are synthesizing and studying the chemistry of organophosphate polymers that may have preceded DNA.

Our work in these areas has led us to: i) develop quantitative analytical techniques for separating and detecting organic and inorganic oligomers and polymers, and ii) explore new chemistry for the synthesis of these classes of molecules.

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