A long-standing problem for the origins of life is that polymerization of many biopolymers, including nucleic acids and peptides, is thermodynamically unfavourable in aqueous solution. If bond making and breaking is reversible, monomers and very short oligomers predominate. Recent experiments have shown that wetting and drying cycles can overcome this problem and drive the formation of longer polymers. In the dry phase, bond formation is favourable, but diffusion is restricted, and bonds only form between monomers that are initially close together. In the wet phase, some of the bonds are hydrolyzed. However, repositioning of the molecules allows new bonds to form in the next dry phase, leading to an increase in mean polymer length. Here, we consider a simple theoretical model that explains the effect of cycling. There is an equilibrium length distribution with a high mean length that could be achieved if diffusion occurred freely in the dry phase. This equilibrium is inaccessible without diffusion. A single dry cycle without diffusion leads to mean lengths much shorter than this. Repeated cycling leads to a significant increase in polymerization relative to a single cycle. In the most favourable case, cycling leads to the same equilibrium length distribution as would be achieved if free diffusion were possible in the dry phase. These results support the RNA World scenario by explaining a potential route to synthesis of long RNAs; however, they also imply that cycling would be beneficial to the synthesis of other kinds of polymers, including peptides, where bond formation involves a condensation reaction.
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