Catalysis by montmorillonites clay minerals is regarded as a feasible mechanism for the abiotic production and polymerization of key biomolecules on early Earth. We have investigated a montmorillonite-catalyzed reaction of the 5'-phosphorimidazolide of nucleosides as a model to probe prebiotic synthesis of RNA-type oligomers. Here we show that this model is specific for the generation of RNA oligomers despite deoxy-mononucleotides adsorbing equally well onto the montmorillonite catalytic surfaces. Optimum catalytic activity was observed over a range of pH (6-9) and salinity (1 ± 0.2 M NaCl). When the weathering steps of early Earth that generated catalytic montmorillonite were modified to meet Martian soil conditions, the catalytic activity remained intact without altering the surface layer charge. Additionally, the formation of oligomers up to tetramer was detected using as little as 0.1 mg of Na⁺-montmorillonite, suggesting that the catalytic activity of a Martian clay return sample can be investigated with sub-milligram scale samples.
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