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For 30 years, Gerald Joyce has been trying to create life. As a graduate student in the 1980s, he studied how the first RNA molecules — chemical cousins to DNA that can both store and transmit genetic information — might have assembled themselves out of simpler units, a process that many scientists believe led to the first living things.

Unfortunately, he had a problem. At a chemical level, a deep bias permeates all of biology. The molecules that make up DNA and other nucleic acids such as RNA have an inherent “handedness.” These molecules can exist in two mirror image forms, but only the right-handed version is found in living organisms. Handedness serves an essential function in living beings; many of the chemical reactions that drive our cells only work with molecules of the correct handedness. But the pre-biological building blocks of life didn’t exhibit such an overwhelming bias. Some were left-handed and some right. So how did right-handed RNA emerge from a mix of molecules?

Joyce was able to build RNA out of right-handed building blocks, as others had done before him. But when he added in left-handed molecules, mimicking the conditions on the early Earth, everything came to a halt. “Our paper said if you have [both] forms in the same place at the same time, you can’t even get started,” Joyce said.

His findings, published in Nature in 1984, suggested that in order for life to emerge, something first had to crack the symmetry between left-handed and right-handed molecules, an event biochemists call “breaking the mirror.” Since then, scientists have largely focused their search for the origin of life’s handedness in the prebiotic worlds of physics and chemistry, not biology.

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