Montmorillonite, oligonucleotides, RNA and origin of life

Orig Life Evol Biosph. 2004 Dec;34(6):549-70. doi: 10.1023/b:orig.0000043130.49790.a7.


Na-montmorillonite prepared from Volclay by the titration method facilitates the self-condensation of ImpA, the 5'-phosphorimidazolide derivative of adenosine. As was shown by AE-HPLC analysis and selective enzymatic hydrolysis of products, oligo(A)s formed in this reaction are 10 monomer units long and contain 67% 3',5'-phosphodiester bonds (Ferris and Ertem, 1992a). Under the same reaction conditions, 5'-phosphorimidazolide derivatives of cytidine, uridine and guanosine also undergo self-condensation producing oligomers containing up to 12-14 monomer units for oligo(C)s to 6 monomer units for oligo(G)s. In oligo(C)s and oligo(U)s, 75-80% of the monomers are linked by 2',5'-phosphodiester bonds. Hexamer and higher oligomers isolated from synthetic oligo(C)s formed by montmorillonite catalysis, which contain both 3',5'- and 2',5'-linkages, serve as catalysts for the non-enzymatic template directed synthesis of oligo(G)s from activated monomer 2-MeImpG, guanosine 5'-phospho-2-methylimidazolide (Ertem and Ferris, 1996). Pentamer and higher oligomers containing exclusively 2',5'-linkages, which were isolated from the synthetic oligo(C)s, also serve as templates and produce oligo(G)s with both 2',5'- and 3',5'-phosphodiester bonds. Kinetic studies on montmorillonite catalyzed elongation rates of oligomers using the computer program SIMFIT demonstrated that the rate constants for the formation of oligo(A)s increased in the order of 2-mer < 3-mer < 4-mer ... < 7-mer (Kawamura and Ferris, 1994). A decameric primer, dA(pdA)8pA bound to montmorillonite was elongated to contain up to 50 monomer units by daily addition of activated monomer ImpA to the reaction mixture (Ferris, Hill and Orgel, 1996). Analysis of dimer fractions formed in the montmorillonite catalyzed reaction of binary and quaternary mixtures of ImpA, ImpC, 2-MeImpG and ImpU suggested that only a limited number of oligomers could have formed on the primitive Earth rather than equal amounts of all possible isomers (Ertem and Ferris, 2000). Formation of phosphodiester bonds between mononucleotides by montmorillonite catalysis is a fascinating discovery, and a significant step forward in efforts to find out how the first RNA-like oligomers might have formed in the course of chemical evolution. However, as has been pointed out in several publications, these systems should be regarded as models rather than a literal representation of prebiotic chemistry (Orgel, 1998; Joyce and Orgel, 1999; Schwartz, 1999).

MeSH terms

  • Bentonite / chemistry*
  • Catalysis
  • Chromatography, High Pressure Liquid
  • Computer Simulation
  • Kinetics
  • Models, Chemical*
  • Nucleosides / chemistry
  • Oligonucleotides / chemical synthesis*
  • Origin of Life*
  • RNA / chemical synthesis*


  • Nucleosides
  • Oligonucleotides
  • Bentonite
  • RNA