A coherent pathway which starts from no more than rocks, water and carbon dioxide and leads to the emergence of the strange bio-energetic properties of living cells, has been traced for the first time in a major hypothesis paper in Cell this week.
At the origin of life the first protocells must have needed a vast amount of energy to drive their metabolism and replication, as enzymes that catalyse very specific reactions were yet to evolve. Most energy flux must have simply dissipated without use.
So where did it all that energy come from on the early Earth, and how did it get focused into driving the organic chemistry required for life?
The answer lies in the chemistry of deep-sea hydrothermal vents. In their paper Nick Lane (UCL, Genetics, Evolution and Environment) and Bill Martin (University of Dusseldorf) address the question of where all this energy came from - and why all life as we know it conserves energy in the peculiar form of ion gradients across membranes.
"Life is, in effect, a side-reaction of an energy-harnessing reaction. Living organisms require vast amounts of energy to go on living," said Nick Lane.
Humans consume more than a kilogram (more than 700 litres) of oxygen every day, exhaling it as carbon dioxide. The simplest cells, growing from the reaction of hydrogen with carbon dioxide, produce about 40 times as much waste product from their respiration as organic carbon (by mass). In all these cases, the energy derived from respiration is stored in the form of ion gradients over membranes.
This strange trait is as universal to life as the genetic code itself. Lane and Martin show that bacteria capable of growing on no more than hydrogen and carbon dioxide are remarkably similar in the details of their carbon and energy metabolism to the far-from-equilibrium chemistry occurring in a particular type of deep-sea hydrothermal vent, known as alkaline hydrothermal vents.
Based on measured values, they calculate that natural proton gradients, acting across thin semi-conducting iron-sulfur mineral walls, could have driven the assimilation of organic carbon, giving rise to protocells within the microporous labyrinth of these vents.
They go on to demonstrate that such protocells are limited by their own permeability, which ultimately forced them to transduce natural proton gradients into biochemical sodium gradients, at no net energetic cost, using a simple Na+/H+ transporter. Their hypothesis predicts a core set of proteins required for early energy conservation, and explains the puzzling promiscuity of respiratory proteins for both protons and sodium ions.
These considerations could also explain the deep divergence between bacteria and archaea (single celled microorganisms) . For the first time, says Lane, "It is possible to trace a coherent pathway leading from no more than rocks, water and carbon dioxide to the strange bioenergetic properties of all cells living today."
University College London: http://www.ucl.ac.uk
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In the article on the discovery of dinosaurs (They’re back, Review, 6 June) you state: “In Sussex, a local doctor uncovered fragmentary remains of what appeared to be two more species of colossal extinct land reptiles.” You grossly underplay the contribution of Lewes-born Gideon Mantell, geologist and palaeontologist, author and diarist, friend to princes and international scholars as well as local doctor. Mantell not only discovered (aided by his wife) the first remains of the iguanodon in 1824 but named it – as it resembled the tooth of an iguana. This was the first known land dinosaur, Mary Anning having identified the first sea-living dinosaur.Mantell went on to put together more pieces of the jigsaw with extra fossil discoveries. In contrast to Richard Owen, whose models form the basis for the Crystal Palace dinosaurs, Mantell stated correctly that iguanodon would have walked on their back legs, using their forearms to fight or gather food. He did, however, attribute the thumb spike to a nose horn though later corrected this assumption. The Natural History Museum has a display on Gideon and his wife Mary’s contribution as well as the large “Mantell-piece” of Iguanodon fossils that he had on show in his museum in Brighton. He sold it, along with many more priceless items, to the British Museum in 1838. Gideon Mantell’s reputation deserves better than your throwaway remark. Debby MatthewsLewes, East Sussex Continue reading...
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