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Cyanide, a deadly chemical that can exist in various forms, has seeped into popular culture over the years through film and fiction. A spy opening an empty, odourless envelope, only to die hours later is the most common scene cyanide has been deployed in by directors, playwrights and authors. As Karen Smith, a senior research scientist at Boise State University, noted a few years ago: “When most people think of cyanide, they think of spy movies — a guy swallowing a pill, foaming at the mouth and dying, but cyanide was probably an essential compound for building molecules necessary for life.”
Indeed, new research has found that the lethal compound could, in fact, have helped life to evolve on Earth.
What’s more, looking for signs of it on alien planets may help us to locate life elsewhere in the Universe, chemists at Scripps Research have found.
The team discovered that the compound, which contains a carbon atom bonded to a nitrogen atom, could have enabled some of the first metabolic reactions on Earth that created carbon-based compounds from carbon dioxide.
Metabolic reactions are reactions that create energy out of food and are essential for sustaining life.
The researchers spoke to BBC Science Focus magazine in its piece ‘Cyanide may have played a key role in the origin of life on Earth, and could help us find ET’.
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Dr Ramanarayanan Krishnamurthy, an associate professor of chemistry at Scripps Research and the study’s lead author, said: “When we look for signs of life – either on the early Earth or on other planets – we base the search on the biochemistry we know exists in life today.
“The fact that these same metabolic reactions can be driven by cyanide shows that life can be very different.”
To make the discovery, the team homed in on a set of chemical reactions that combine carbon dioxide and water.
This was intended to create the more complex compounds that are necessary for life known as the reverse tricarboxylic acid, or r-TCA cycle.
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The cycle is used by some bacteria that currently exist on Earth.
But, it relies on the use of complex proteins that had not yet formed on the planet during its infancy four billion years ago.
Previous studies have shown that certain metals can trigger the same reactions under extremely hot and highly acidic conditions.
But the Scripps team had a hunch that another chemical compound may also be able to do so, only under the less extreme conditions seen on the early Earth.
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Because they already knew that cyanide was present in the atmosphere back then, they were able to map out a set of reactions that could potentially use cyanide to produce more complex organic molecules from carbon dioxide, and later tested these in the laboratory.
Dr Krishnamurthy said: “It was scary how simple it was.
“We really didn’t have to do anything special, we mixed together these molecules, waited and the reaction happened spontaneously.”
It is a hopeful sign in figuring out how biology came to be on Earth, given that once our planet was filled with only non-biological chemistry.
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Unfortunately, the experiment does not offer conclusive proof that cyanide was involved in this process on the early Earth.
But, it does offer a fresh way of thinking about the origin of life.
And, according to the researchers, it perhaps provides a new means of searching for life on other planets.
It is not the first time scientists have looked into cyanide and found interesting results.
Early Earth: While the study does not give conclusive proof, it could offer a new perspective
A 2019 study suggested that meteorites laced with iron, cyanide and carbon monoxide (another deadly compound) would have helped early life on the planet.
It offered what were at the time new insights: for example, that cyanide and carbon monoxide link up with iron to create stable compounds (or iron cyano-carbonyl complexes) similar to certain structures on those vital hydrogenase enzymes.
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