The stability of the RNA bases: Implications for the origin of life

Matthew Levy, Stanley L. Miller

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

253 Scopus citations


High-temperature origin-of-life theories require that the components of the first genetic material are stable. We therefore have measured the half- lives for the decomposition of the nucleobases. They have been found to be short on the geologic time scale. At 100°C, the growth temperatures of the hyperthermophiles, the half-lives are too short to allow for the adequate accumulation of these compounds (t( 1/4 ) for A and G ≃ 1 yr; U = 12 yr; C = 19 days). Therefore, unless the origin of life took place extremely rapidly (< 100 yr), we conclude that a high-temperature origin of life may be possible, but it cannot involve adenine, uracil, guanine, or cytosine. The rates of hydrolysis at 100°C also suggest that an ocean-boiling asteroid impact would reset the prebiotic clock, requiring prebiotic synthetic processes to begin again. At 0°C, A, U, G, and T appear to be sufficiently stable (t(1/2) ≤ 106 yr) to be involved in a low-temperature origin of life. However, the lack of stability of cytosine at 0°C °(t(1/2) = 17,000 yr) raises the possibility that the GC base pair may not have been used in the first genetic material unless life arose quickly (<106 yr) after a sterilization event. A two-letter code or an alternative base pair may have been used instead.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)7933-7938
Number of pages6
JournalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
Issue number14
StatePublished - Jul 7 1998
Externally publishedYes


  • Chemical evolution
  • Nucleobase hydrolysis
  • RNA world

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General


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