Carbon dioxide (CO2) is the major carbonaceous component of many planetary atmospheres, which includes the Earth throughout its history. Carbon fixation chemistry-which reduces CO2 to organics, utilizing hydrogen as the stoichiometric reductant-usually requires high pressures and temperatures, and the yields of products of potential use to nascent biology are low. Here we demonstrate an efficient ultraviolet photoredox chemistry between CO2 and sulfite that generates organics and sulfate. The chemistry is initiated by electron photodetachment from sulfite to give sulfite radicals and hydrated electrons, which reduce CO2 to its radical anion. A network of reactions that generates citrate, malate, succinate and tartrate by irradiation of glycolate in the presence of sulfite was also revealed. The simplicity of this carboxysulfitic chemistry and the widespread occurrence and abundance of its feedstocks suggest that it could have readily taken place on the surfaces of rocky planets. The availability of the carboxylate products on early Earth could have driven the development of central carbon metabolism before the advent of biological CO2 fixation.
© 2021. The Author(s), under exclusive licence to Springer Nature Limited.