A theoretical study suggests that urea could serve as a catalyst in the abiotic synthesis of uracil. Uracil is one of four nucleobases used in ribonucleic acid (RNA). Understanding how uracil and other nucleobases can be formed abiotically is an important topic in origin of life studies. Presumably these molecules used by living cells would have been present on Earth before life began. The study reports the use of computational simulations to examine the chemical transformation of the amino acid cysteine to uracil using the compound urea as a catalyst.

The study, “Catalytic abiotic synthesis of uracil from cysteine and urea: Theoretical studies,” was published in the journal Chemical Physics Letters. The work was performed at the NSF/NASA Center for Chemical Evolution (CCE) at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta, Georgia. The CCE is a collaborative program supported by the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the NASA Astrobiology Program.