Rates of decomposition of ribose and other sugars: implications for chemical evolution

Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 1995 Aug 29;92(18):8158-60. doi: 10.1073/pnas.92.18.8158.


The existence of the RNA world, in which RNA acted as a catalyst as well as an informational macromolecule, assumes a large prebiotic source of ribose or the existence of pre-RNA molecules with backbones different from ribose-phosphate. The generally accepted prebiotic synthesis of ribose, the formose reaction, yields numerous sugars without any selectivity. Even if there were a selective synthesis of ribose, there is still the problem of stability. Sugars are known to be unstable in strong acid or base, but there are few data for neutral solutions. Therefore, we have measured the rate of decomposition of ribose between pH 4 and pH 8 from 40 degrees C to 120 degrees C. The ribose half-lives are very short (73 min at pH 7.0 and 100 degrees C and 44 years at pH 7.0 and 0 degrees C). The other aldopentoses and aldohexoses have half-lives within an order of magnitude of these values, as do 2-deoxyribose, ribose 5-phosphate, and ribose 2,4-bisphosphate. These results suggest that the backbone of the first genetic material could not have contained ribose or other sugars because of their instability.

Publication types

  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Biological Evolution*
  • Half-Life
  • Hexoses / chemistry*
  • Hot Temperature
  • Hydrogen-Ion Concentration
  • Kinetics
  • Pentoses / chemistry*
  • Ribose / chemistry*


  • Hexoses
  • Pentoses
  • Ribose