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Chemists say they have solved a crucial problem in a theory of life’s beginnings, by demonstrating that RNA molecules can link short chains of amino acids together.

The findings, published on 11 May in Nature, support a variation on the ‘RNA world’ hypothesis, which proposes that before the evolution of DNA and the proteins it encodes, the first organisms were based on strands of RNA, a molecule that can both store genetic information — as sequences of the nucleosides A, C, G and U — and act as a catalyst for chemical reactions.

The discovery “opens up vast and fundamentally new avenues of pursuit for early chemical evolution”, says Bill Martin, who studies molecular evolution at Heinrich Heine University Düsseldorf in Germany.

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