The ability to store information is believed to have been crucial for the origin and evolution of life; however, little is known about the genetic polymers relevant to abiogenesis. Nitrogen heterocycles (N-heterocycles) are plausible components of such polymers as they may have been readily available on early Earth and are the means by which the extant genetic macromolecules RNA and DNA store information. Here, we report the reactivity of numerous N-heterocycles in highly complex mixtures, which were generated using a Miller-Urey spark discharge apparatus with either a reducing or neutral atmosphere, to investigate how N-heterocycles are modified under plausible prebiotic conditions. High throughput mass spectrometry was used to identify N-heterocycle adducts. Additionally, tandem mass spectrometry and nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy were used to elucidate reaction pathways for select reactions. Remarkably, we found that the majority of N-heterocycles, including the canonical nucleobases, gain short carbonyl side chains in our complex mixtures via a Strecker-like synthesis or Michael addition. These types of N-heterocycle adducts are subunits of the proposed RNA precursor, peptide nucleic acids (PNAs). The ease with which these carbonylated heterocycles form under both reducing and neutral atmospheres is suggestive that PNAs could be prebiotically feasible on early Earth.
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