How primordial metabolic networks such as the reverse tricarboxylic acid (rTCA) cycle and clay mineral catalysts coevolved remains a mystery in the puzzle to understand the origin of life. While prebiotic reactions from the rTCA cycle were accomplished via photochemistry on semiconductor minerals, the synthesis of clays was demonstrated at low temperature and ambient pressure catalyzed by oxalate. Herein, the crystallization of clay minerals is catalyzed by succinate, an example of a photoproduced intermediate from central metabolism. The experiments connect the synthesis of sauconite, a model for clay minerals, to prebiotic photochemistry. We report the temperature, pH, and concentration dependence on succinate for the synthesis of sauconite identifying new mechanisms of clay formation in surface environments of rocky planets. The work demonstrates that seeding induces nucleation at low temperatures accelerating the crystallization process. Cryogenic and conventional transmission electron microscopies, X-ray diffraction, diffuse reflectance Fourier transformed infrared spectroscopy, and measurements of total surface area are used to build a three-dimensional representation of the clay. These results suggest the coevolution of clay minerals and early metabolites in our planet could have been facilitated by sunlight photochemistry, which played a significant role in the complex interplay between rocks and life over geological time.

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Published in Scientific Reports, v. 7, article no. 533, p. 1-12.

© The Author(s) 2017

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License. The images or other third party material in this article are included in the article’s Creative Commons license, unless indicated otherwise in the credit line; if the material is not included under the Creative Commons license, users will need to obtain permission from the license holder to reproduce the material. To view a copy of this license, visit http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/.

An erratum to this article can be found at https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-017-04859-3.

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M.I.G. acknowledges funding from the National Science Foundation under NSF CAREER award CHE-1255290. Partial support from the University of Kentucky by a Research Challenge Trust Fund Fellowship to R.Z. is gratefully acknowledged. H.V. acknowledges funding from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) of Canada.

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