A synergistic experimental and theoretical approach reveal that silicate surfaces present attractive catalytic properties to synthesis sugars through the formose reaction under prebiotic conditions.

The presence of minerals in the prebiotic environment likely shaped the evolution of organic matter, thereby contributing to the emergence of prebiotic systems. Records of such systems are lacking and the interactions between abiotic organic matter and primary minerals remain poorly understood. Here, we demonstrate the ability of olivine silicates, in simulated early Earth or planetary aqueous environments, to catalyse glycolaldehyde formation from only formaldehyde, and help producing sugars that are essential components for life, through the formose reaction. By combining comprehensive gas chromatography analyses on experimental samples with quantum chemical simulations, we provide a mechanism for an olivine-catalyzed glycolaldehyde formation. Our findings suggest that olivine plays a triple role in the formose chemical network: maintaining an alkaline pH, enabling the initiation step towards the formation of glycoladehyde (which is typically the most challenging step) and promoting the autocatalytic cycle. These results open-up new scenarios on the impact of primary minerals on the evolution of chemical pathways in aqueous environments that were probably essential for the emergence of the first biomolecules.

This work has been published in Earth and Planetary Science Letters.

Link to the article as open access in Earth Planet. Sci. Lett.: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0012821X23005691?via%3Dihub