(UPI) -- Life on earth may have originated in clay, which provided a safe space for the complex biochemical processes that made life possible on our planet.
Biological engineers at Cornell University found that in simulated ancient seawater, clay forms a hydrogel -- a mass of small spaces capable of soaking up liquids.
It is in the protection of these spaces that simple chemicals carried out complex reactions to form proteins, DNA and eventually life-sustaining functions.
"We propose that in early geological history clay hydrogel provided a confinement function for biomolecules and biochemical reactions," said Dan Luo, professor of biological and environmental engineering at Cornell.
While researching cheaper drug production methods, the group used synthetic hydrogels filled with DNA and provided the necessary machinery for the reactions to occur.
But synthetic hydrogels are expensive and as the group looked for a cheaper alternative, postdoctoral researcher Dayong Yang noticed that clay naturally formed a hydrogel.
But why consider clay?
"It's dirt cheap," said Luo. And it turned out, unexpectedly, that using clay enhanced protein production.
The researchers now believe they had discovered the answer to a long-standing question -- How did biomolecules evolve? Geological history has shown that clay appeared just as biomolecules began to form into cell-like structures. The geological events conveniently matched biological events.
While it is unclear how these processes evolved, the group’s work is now focused on understanding why a clay hydrogel works so well.