The simplest molecules grouping the four most common elements of the universe H,C,O and N (with the exception of the biologically inert He) are isocyanate HNCO and formamide H2NCOH. Reasons for the availability of formamide on prebiotic Earth are presented. We review evidence showing that formamide in the presence of largely available catalysts and by moderate heating yields the complete set of nucleic bases necessary for the formation of nucleic acids. Formamide also favours the formation of acyclonucleosides and the phosphorylation and trans-phosphorylation of nucleosides, thus providing a plausible chemical frame for the passage from a simple one-carbon compound to nucleic polymers. Physico-chemical conditions exist in which formamide favours the stability of the phosphoester bonds in nucleic polymers relative to that of the same bonds in monomers. Starting from a formamide-laden environment subject only to the laws of chemistry, a hypothesis is outlined sketching the passage towards an aqueous world in which Darwinian rules apply. © 2007 Costanzo et al; licensee BioMed Central Ltd.
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