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Four billion-year-old chemistry in cells today?

July 24, 2014
Courtesy of the University of East Anglia
and World Science staff

Some of the chem­i­cal pro­cesses that first gave rise to life may be still at work in liv­ing cells, ac­cord­ing to sci­en­tists.

These an­cient chem­i­cal re­ac­tions are thought by some sci­en­tists to have tak­en place in a “p­ri­mor­dial soup” where life orig­i­nat­ed, such as a pond or ocean. The re­search, pub­lished Ju­ly 24 in the Jour­nal of Bi­o­log­i­cal Chem­is­try, ar­gues that cells in plants, yeast and very like­ly al­so in an­i­mals still per­form these pro­cesses, some four bil­lion years old.

The pri­mor­di­al soup the­o­ry sug­gests that life be­gan in a pond or ocean as a re­sult of the com­bin­a­t­ion of met­als, gas­es from the at­mos­phere and some form of en­er­gy, such as a light­ning strike. This would have re­sulted in the form­a­t­ion of build­ing blocks of pro­teins, or mol­e­cules used as the in­gre­di­ents for life forms.

The new re­search dis­cusses how small pock­ets of a cell con­tin­ue to per­form si­m­i­lar re­ac­tions in our bod­ies. These re­ac­tions in­volve iron, sul­fur and electro-chem­is­try and are still im­por­tant for en­er­gy-getting pro­cesses such as respir­a­t­ion in an­i­mals and pho­to­syn­the­sis in plants.

“Cells con­fine cer­tain bits of dan­ger­ous chem­is­try to spe­cif­ic com­part­ments of the cel­l,” said lead re­searcher Jan­neke Balk of the at the Uni­vers­ity of East An­glia in the U.K. “For ex­am­ple small pock­ets of a cell called mi­to­chon­dria deal with electrochem­is­try and al­so with tox­ic sul­fur me­tab­o­lism. These are very an­cient re­ac­tions thought to have been im­por­tant for the or­i­gin of life.

“Our re­search has shown that a tox­ic sul­fur com­pound is be­ing ex­ported by a mi­to­chon­drial trans­port pro­tein to oth­er parts of the cell. We need sul­fur for mak­ing iron-sul­fur cat­a­lysts, again a very an­cient chem­i­cal pro­cess.” A cat­a­lyst is a mol­e­cule that fa­cil­i­tates chem­i­cal re­ac­tions be­tween oth­er mol­e­cules.

“The work shows that parts of the pri­mor­di­al soup in which life arose has been main­tained in our cells to­day, and is in fact har­nessed to main­tain im­por­tant bi­o­log­i­cal re­ac­tions,” Balk said.


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Some of the chemical process that gave rise to life may be still at work in modern living cells, according to scientists. These ancient chemical reactions are thought by some scientists to have taken place in the “primordial soup” where life originated, such as a pond or ocean. The research, published Ju ly 24 in the Journal of Biological Chemistry, argues that cells in plants, yeast and very like ly also in animals still perform these processes, some four billion years old. The primordial soup theory suggests that life began in a pond or ocean as a result of the combin ation of metals, gases from the atmosphere and some form of energy, such as a lightning strike. This would have resulted in the form ation of building blocks of proteins, or molecules used as the ingredients for life forms. The new research discusses how small pockets of a cell continue to perform similar reactions in our bodies. These reactions involve iron, sulfur and electro-chemistry and are still important for energy-getting processes such as respir ation in animals and photosynthesis in plants. “Cells confine certain bits of dangerous chemistry to specific compartments of the cell,” said lead researcher Janneke Balk of the at the Uni vers ity of East Anglia in the U.K. “For example small pockets of a cell called mitochondria deal with electrochemistry and also with toxic sulfur metabolism. These are very ancient reactions thought to have been important for the origin of life. “Our research has shown that a toxic sulfur compound is being exported by a mitochondrial transport protein to other parts of the cell. We need sulfur for making iron-sulfur catalysts, again a very ancient chemical process.” A catalyst is a molecule that facilitates chemical reactions between other molecules. “The work shows that parts of the primordial soup in which life arose has been maintained in our cells today, and is in fact harnessed to maintain important biological reactions,” Balk said.