Atmospheric Production of Glycolaldehyde Under Hazy Prebiotic Conditions

Chester E. Harman, James F. Kasting, Eric T. Wolf

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25 Scopus citations


The early Earth's atmosphere, with extremely low levels of molecular oxygen and an appreciable abiotic flux of methane, could have been a source of organic compounds necessary for prebiotic chemistry. Here, we investigate the formation of a key RNA precursor, glycolaldehyde (2-hydroxyacetaldehyde, or GA) using a 1-dimensional photochemical model. Maximum atmospheric production of GA occurs when the CH4:CO2 ratio is close to 0.02. The total atmospheric production rate of GA remains small, only 1×107 mol yr-1. Somewhat greater amounts of GA production, up to 2 × 108 mol yr-1, could have been provided by the formose reaction or by direct delivery from space. Even with these additional production mechanisms, open ocean GA concentrations would have remained at or below ~1 μM, much smaller than the 1-2 M concentrations required for prebiotic synthesis routes like those proposed by Powner et al. (Nature 459:239-242, 2009). Additional production or concentration mechanisms for GA, or alternative formation mechanisms for RNA, are needed, if this was indeed how life originated on the early Earth.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)77-98
Number of pages22
JournalOrigins of Life and Evolution of Biospheres
Issue number2
StatePublished - Apr 2013

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Space and Planetary Science


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