Formaldehyde linked to origins of life

By Katy Nielsen

Scientists say the poisonous chemical formaldehyde, widely used in embalming and preserving biological specimens, may have helped create the organic compounds that led to the development of life on Earth.

The discovery of the link between formaldehyde and chemicals that gave rise to life was made by researchers George Cody, Conel Alexander and Larry Nittler, of the Carnegie Institution for Science in Washington, D.C., who studied samples collected by NASA. If verified, it would solve a mystery that has puzzled scientists for decades.

Their findings were presented in a report published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on April 4.

The researchers discovered that the hydrocarbons believed to have been brought to Earth by meteorites and comets when the planet was young, formed by a chemical reaction with formaldehyde, which is widely prevalent in the universe. This means basic elements in the early solar system may have originated from a chemical we now consider poisonous.

“Formaldehyde appears to have been a major player in the chemistry that preceded life’s origins,” said Cody, who works as a geophysicist at Carnegie in Washington, D.C., and one of the study’s primary researchers. “Our unique discovery is that the majority of organic solids are derived from formaldehyde.”

Scientists succeeded in identifying an origin for an abundant and complex molecular solid, formaldehyde, which is a 4.6 billion-year-old compound, Cody said.

For the study, scientists set up chemical reactions in the lab that would recreate compounds found on meteorites returned to Earth by the NASA Stardust mission to Comet 81P/Wild 2. Formaldehyde was used as the preliminary ingredient. They found the chemical reactions in the lab created compounds like the ones found on the meteorites, according to Cody.

“Formaldehyde is poisonous to us in this stage of development,” said Arthur Weber, research scientist at the Set Institute in Mountain View, Calif., who studies the origins of life. He has worked in this field since the 1960s and said based on his research, early cells would not have been poisoned by formaldehyde.

The same energy that makes formaldehyde toxic is also the energy that allows it to help make organic compounds, said Steven Benner, distinguished fellow at the Foundation for Applied Molecular Evolution in Gainesville, Fla.

“A poison is something defined by a particular biology,” Benner said. “To many bacteria, for example, oxygen is poisonous.”

Formaldehyde comprises two hydrogen atoms, one carbon atom and one oxygen atom. The ratio is the same as sugar glucose, which has 12 hydrogen atoms, six carbon atoms and six oxygen atoms. This means formaldehyde can reassemble to form sugars, and sugars are the foundation of life. Sugars have an internal energy they carry in their structure, and they can react without any other energy source.

“You can take formaldehyde, incubate it and it will form sugars and then the sugars will form more complex molecules in the presence of ammonia and other amino acids,” Weber said.

These chemical reactions take place in moderate conditions, so extreme heat, for instance, is not required. Sunlight may be initially needed to make formaldehyde, but once the chemical is involved, it can change on its own.

“[This is] very important to understanding our solar system’s early evolution and the origins of the most abundant form of carbon in primitive bodies,” Cody said.

Once life took form on Earth, its evolution had nothing to do with formaldehyde chemistry, Cody said. Early life looked different from life as we know it today, but understanding the earliest stages of development will help scientists understand everything that followed thereafter.