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Autocatalysis reaction builds life, and it may be more common than once thought

Science tells us that the universe teems with planets; observations and odds-makers tell us a portion of them have the conditions or ingredients needed for life.

But how many recipes for life are there?

A new paper in the Journal of the American Chemical Society offers one possible answer.

Barring a supernatural event, life likely arose from a special type of positive-feedback chemical reaction called autocatalysis.

Lab experiments have shown how even simple molecular ingredients can sustain such reactions and even make life-sustaining sugars.

What remains less clear is how commonly they might occur outside the lab or beyond our blue planet.

When researchers scoured the literature for examples of such self-sustaining reactions that could also build more complex molecules, they found potential in every group on the periodic table.

The findings suggest life’s chemical ingredients and recipes might be more abundant than once thought.

However, the special ways some ingredients must be arranged in space and time to trigger and sustain such reactions could help explain why we don’t see life springing up everywhere.

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Nicholas Gerbis was a senior field correspondent for KJZZ from 2016 to 2024.