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Study suggests life sprang from clay

Florescent micrograph reveals RNA, red, absorbed to mineral clay surface and encapsulated within a cell-related structure known as a vesicle.
Florescent micrograph reveals RNA, red, absorbed to mineral clay surface and encapsulated within a cell-related structure known as a vesicle.

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WASHINGTON (Reuters) -- Science backed up religion this week in a study that suggests life may have indeed sprung from clay -- just as many faiths teach.

A team at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston said they had shown materials in clay were key to some of the initial processes in forming life.

Specifically, a clay mixture called montmorillonite not only helps form little bags of fat and liquid but helps cells use genetic material called RNA. That, in turn, is one of the key processes of life.

Jack Szostak, Martin Hanczyc and Shelly Fujikawa were building on earlier work that found clays could catalyze the chemical reactions needed to make RNA from building blocks called nucleotides.

They found the clay sped along the process by which fatty acids formed little bag-like structures called vesicles. The clay also carried RNA into those vesicles. A cell is, in essence, a complex bag of liquidy compounds.

"Thus, we have demonstrated that not only can clay and other mineral surfaces accelerate vesicle assembly, but assuming that the clay ends up inside at least some of the time, this provides a pathway by which RNA could get into vesicles," Szostak said in a statement Thursday.

"The formation, growth and division of the earliest cells may have occurred in response to similar interactions with mineral particles and inputs of material and energy," the researchers wrote in their report, published in the journal Science.

"We are not claiming that this is how life started," Szostak stressed.

"We are saying that we have demonstrated growth and division without any biochemical machinery. Ultimately, if we can demonstrate more natural ways this might have happened, it may begin to give us clues about how life could have actually gotten started on the primitive Earth."

Among religious texts that refer to life being formed from the soil is the Bible's Book of Genesis where God tells Adam, (King James translation), "In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast thou taken: for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return."

Copyright 2003 Reuters. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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