Tetrapyrrolemacrocycles (e.g., porphyrins) have long been proposed as key ingredients in the emergence of life, yet plausible routes for forming their essential pyrrole precursor have previously not been identified. Here, the anaerobic reaction of δ-aminolevulinic acid (ALA, 5–240 mM) with 5-methoxy-3-(methoxyacetyl)levulinic acid (1-AcOH, 5–240 mM) in water (pH 5–7) at 25–85 °C for a few hours to a few days affords uroporphyrinogen, which upon chemical oxidation gives uroporphyrin in overall yield of up to 10%. The key intermediate is the α-methoxymethyl-substituted analogue of the pyrrole porphobilinogen (PBG). Reaction of ALA and the decarboxy analogue of 1-AcOH (1-Me) gave coproporphyrinogen (without its biosynthetic precursor uroporphyrinogen as an intermediate); oxidation gave the corresponding coproporphyrin in yields comparable to those for uroporphyrin. In each case a mixture of porphyrin isomers was obtained, consistent with reversible oligopyrromethane formation. The route investigated here differs from the universal extant biosynthetic pathway to tetrapyrrolemacrocycles, where uroporphyrinogen (isomer III) – nature's last common precursor to corrins, heme, and chlorophylls – is derived from eight molecules of ALA (via four molecules of PBG). The demonstration of the spontaneous self-organization of eight acyclic molecules to form the porphyrinogen under simple conditions may open the door to the development of a chemical model for the prebiogenesis of tetrapyrrolemacrocycles.
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