Although it is generally accepted that amino acids were present on the prebiotic Earth, the mechanism by which α-amino acids were condensed into polypeptides before the emergence of enzymes remains unsolved. Here, we demonstrate a prebiotically plausible mechanism for peptide (amide) bond formation that is enabled by α-hydroxy acids, which were likely present along with amino acids on the early Earth. Together, α-hydroxy acids and α-amino acids form depsipeptides - oligomers with a combination of ester and amide linkages - in model prebiotic reactions that are driven by wet-cool/dry-hot cycles. Through a combination of ester-amide bond exchange and ester bond hydrolysis, depsipeptides are enriched with amino acids over time. These results support a long-standing hypothesis that peptides might have arisen from ester-based precursors.
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