Differential Oligomerization of Alpha versus Beta Amino Acids and Hydroxy Acids in Abiotic Proto-Peptide Synthesis Reactions

Moran Frenkel-Pinter, Kaitlin C. Jacobson, Jonathan Eskew-Martin, Jay G. Forsythe, Martha A. Grover, Loren Dean Williams*, Nicholas V. Hud*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

5 Scopus citations


The origin of biopolymers is a central question in origins of life research. In extant life, proteins are coded linear polymers made of a fixed set of twenty alpha-L-amino acids. It is likely that the prebiotic forerunners of proteins, or protopeptides, were more heterogenous polymers with a greater diversity of building blocks and linkage stereochemistry. To investigate a possible chemical selection for alpha versus beta amino acids in abiotic polymerization reactions, we subjected mixtures of alpha and beta hydroxy and amino acids to single-step dry-down or wet-dry cycling conditions. The resulting model protopeptide mixtures were analyzed by a variety of analytical techniques, including mass spectrometry and NMR spectroscopy. We observed that amino acids typically exhibited a higher extent of polymerization in reactions that also contained alpha hydroxy acids over beta hydroxy acids, whereas the extent of polymerization by beta amino acids was higher compared to their alpha amino acid analogs. Our results suggest that a variety of heterogenous protopeptide backbones existed during the prebiotic epoch, and that selection towards alpha backbones occurred later as a result of polymer evolution.

Original languageAmerican English
Article number265
Issue number2
StatePublished - Feb 2022

Bibliographical note

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© 2022 by the authors.Licensee MDPI, Basel, Switzerland.


  • Chemical evolution
  • Condensation dehydration
  • Depsipeptides
  • Peptide evolution
  • Prebiotic chemistry


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