Selective incorporation of proteinaceous over nonproteinaceous cationic amino acids in model prebiotic oligomerization reactions

Moran Frenkel-Pinter, Jay W. Haynes, C. Martin, Anton S. Petrov, Bradley T. Burcar, Ramanarayanan Krishnamurthy, Nicholas V. Hud, Luke J. Leman*, Loren Dean Williams

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

74 Scopus citations


Numerous long-standing questions in origins-of-life research center on the history of biopolymers. For example, how and why did nature select the polypeptide backbone and proteinaceous side chains? Depsipeptides, containing both ester and amide linkages, have been proposed as ancestors of polypeptides. In this paper, we investigate cationic depsipeptides that form under mild dry-down reactions. We compare the oligomerization of various cationic amino acids, including the cationic proteinaceous amino acids (lysine, Lys; arginine, Arg; and histidine, His), along with nonproteinaceous analogs of Lys harboring fewer methylene groups in their side chains. These analogs, which have been discussed as potential prebiotic alternatives to Lys, are ornithine, 2,4-diaminobu-tyric acid, and 2,3-diaminopropionic acid (Orn, Dab, and Dpr). We observe that the proteinaceous amino acids condense more extensively than these nonproteinaceous amino acids. Orn and Dab readily cyclize into lactams, while Dab and Dpr condense less efficiently. Furthermore, the proteinaceous amino acids exhibit more selective oligomerization through their α-amines relative to their side-chain groups. This selectivity results in predominantly linear depsipeptides in which the amino acids are α-amine−linked, analogous to today’s proteins. These results suggest a chemical basis for the selection of Lys, Arg, and His over other cationic amino acids for incorporation into proto-proteins on the early Earth. Given that electrostatics are key elements of protein−RNA and protein−DNA interactions in extant life, we hypothesize that cationic side chains incorporated into proto-peptides, as reported in this study, served in a variety of functions with ancestral nucleic acid polymers in the early stages of life.

Original languageAmerican English
Pages (from-to)16338-16346
Number of pages9
JournalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
Issue number33
StatePublished - 13 Aug 2019
Externally publishedYes

Bibliographical note

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© 2019 National Academy of Sciences. All rights reserved.


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


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