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If Thomas Carell is right, around 4 billion years ago, much of Earth might have been blanketed with a greyish-brown kind of mineral. This was no ordinary rock, however: it consisted of crystals of the organic molecules that scientists now call A, U, C and G. And some of these, the theory goes, would later serve as the building blocks of RNA, the evolutionary engine of the first living organisms, before DNA existed.

Carell, an organic chemist, and his collaborators have now demonstrated a chemical pathway that — in principle — could have made A, U, C and G (adenine, uracil, cytosine and guanine, respectively) from basic ingredients such as water and nitrogen under conditions that would have been plausible on the early Earth. The reactions produce so much of these nucleobases that, millennium after millennium, they could have accumulated in thick crusts, Carell says. His team describes the results in Science on 3 October1.

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