Claudia El Nachef, Ph.D.

Postdoctoral Research Fellow, University of Ottawa

SCOL Project: Simple Aldehydes and Carbohydrates as Prebiotic Catalysts

Over decades, scientists have been trying to understand how life as we know it today emerged from simpler molecules. From a chemical evolution perspective, the molecular complexity of life is daunting. Building on the key Miller experiment, scientists have attempted to rationalize how simple molecular building blocks (HCN, NH3, CH4, aldehydes, etc.) have led to more complex structures such as: purines, pyrimidines, amino acids, and eventually to self replicating machinery. By definition, these structures must form through intermolecular reactions, for which there is an entropic penalty. Intermolecular reactions are also inherently slow at low concentrations. Catalysis of difficult intermolecular reactions is very important, as it could have dictated how chemical evolution occurred.

This proposal aims at investigating the roles of simple aldehydes and carbohydrates as catalysts in chemical evolution (prebiotic chemistry). An important goal is to establish that aldehydes could have acted as “simple enzymes” for many reactions involving water, which were crucial to form the building blocks of life (amino acids and base pairs). Second, it will show that these aldehydes can operate as catalysts under dilute aqueous conditions, through a pre-concentration mechanism that avoids most of the entropic penalty associated with intermolecular reactions. In parallel, studies will focus on possible mechanisms through which aldehydes and carbohydrates could have induced homochirality under prebiotic conditions, and create the single handedness observed in organic molecules. Overall, this work will establish that several prebiotic aldehydes and carbohydrates are “sweet” catalysts, thus addressing important void in the prebiotic chemistry literature.

Education: University of Florida, Ph.D., Organic Chemistry
Institution: University of Ottawa (laboratory of André M. Beauchemin)

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