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Earth Science

Transition Metal Catalysts Could Be Key To Origin of Life 145

Posted by samzenpus
from the it-was-just-zirconium-all-along dept.
An anonymous reader writes "One of the big, unsolved problems in explaining how life arose on Earth is a chicken-and-egg paradox: How could the basic biochemicals — such as amino acids and nucleotides — have arisen before the biological catalysts (proteins or ribozymes) existed to carry out their formation? In a paper appearing in the current issue of The Biological Bulletin, scientists propose that a third type of catalyst could have jumpstarted metabolism and life itself, deep in hydrothermal ocean vents."
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Transition Metal Catalysts Could Be Key To Origin of Life

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  • Ah Mercury (Score:3, Funny)

    by Ukab the Great (87152) on Sunday September 05, 2010 @07:34PM (#33484368)

    Sweetest of the transition metals.

  • But that's not science, that's philosophy.
    • Philosophy is the love (and by implication, study) of wisdom. I think you mean theory, or perhaps supposition.

  • Ah! So now I know what the missing ingredients in my Miller-Urey experiments are! http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Miller%E2%80%93Urey_experiment [wikipedia.org]

    I just need to add a dash of Transition Metal Catalysts.

    The stuff has been cooking for the last thirty years, and no life has crawled out yet . . .

    • by Black Parrot (19622) on Sunday September 05, 2010 @08:41PM (#33484764)

      The stuff has been cooking for the last thirty years, and no life has crawled out yet . . .

      Hardly a surprise, since the real thing took as much as a billion years in a planet-sized beaker.

      FWIW, I'm not sure the U-M experiments properly reflect our current understanding of the chemistry of the early earth, either.

  • Does anyone know who's behind this outfit? I've been seeing their pieces appearing on slashdot pretty frequently, and their pieces all have been short in PR release style, but their website is pretty much devoid of any info on their setup, who they are, etc.
    • [Begin Outpouring of Righteous Nerd Rage]

      How dare you take advantage of people's propensity to not RTFA by casting false aspersions on the authors in this way. In reply

      1) The article is more fact-laden and longer than most articles we publish here

      2) The well-established authors and institutions names are there for all to see - no PR, just science!

      3) You are a Republican sock-puppet and you and your kind have been holding back the whole of humanity since the Enlightenment just so you and your families can ma

  • by sconeu (64226) on Sunday September 05, 2010 @08:25PM (#33484652) Homepage Journal

    How could the basic biochemicals - such as amino acids and nucleotides - have arisen before the biological catalysts (proteins or ribozymes) existed to carry out their formation

    Didn't the Miller-Urey Experiment [wikipedia.org] answer how amino acids could show up?

    • Didn't the Miller-Urey Experiment answer how amino acids could show up?

      They have been spotted even in interstellar gas. Seems that they're not so hard to form in our universe.

      • From what I've read, there's nothing wrong with the results of the Miller-Urey experiment, only whether its setup was actually similar to conditions on the early Earth. In other words, it is unlikely that Earth's original atmosphere had large amounts of methane, ammonia and hydrogen (e.g. a Jupiter-like atmosphere). More likely it consisted of elemental nitrogen (N2), carbon dioxide, and water vapor. Using a mixture like that, very few organic compounds can be created by electrical discharges.
    • by ceoyoyo (59147)

      I think the journalist invented the amino acid thing. The rest of the article sounds like it's talking about proteins - how do you turn amino acids into proteins without proteins to do the assembly?

    • Amino Acids? Yes. Nucleotides? No.

      In case you are curious, Amino Acids are the building blocks of proteins. Nucleotides are the building blocks of RNA and DNA. Also ATP (the fuel of life)

      So Miller-Urey Experiment was able to make Amino Acids of both chiralities equally (only L is used by all life)

      But Nucleotides? No.

    • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

      by Artifakt (700173)

      The problem is, the experiments showed that amino acids were much easier to get than was originally thought. But when that result was announced, the general opinion was that getting from there to protein and nucleic acid synthesis was comparatively simpler, and would happen using much the same experimental setup. People confidently predicted the full synthesis of life within a year, or at most a few. Such predictions flew about, in major places such as Life magazine, the New York Times, and official U.S. Go

      • There have been resent experiments that show the self assembly of amino acids into complex chains that are needed to produce neucliotides. The experiments were discussed on an early episode of Futures in BioTech. I believe it is one of the shows that Susan Linquist was on: http://futuresinbiotech.com/display/Search?searchQuery=Lindquist&moduleId=5706204&moduleFilter=&categoryFilter=&startAt=0 [futuresinbiotech.com]

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  • Everyone knows that Gil Gerard created life by going back in time and ejaculating into the primordial ooze.
  • by interactive_civilian (205158) <mamoru@gm[ ].com ['ail' in gap]> on Sunday September 05, 2010 @08:33PM (#33484698) Homepage Journal

    Isn't this old news? (pun not entirely intended)... A couple of the more prominent abiogenesis hypotheses have been based on this for most of the decade of not more. Here's a paper from 2003 that, while it has its flaws (some of which have been rectified, some of which have been completely rethought over the last 7 years) offers a fairly complete and very compelling hypothesis for how life may have originated at warm, alkaline thermal vents like those found at the Lost City thermal vent fields:

    Martin, W. & Russell, M.J., 2003. On the origins of cells: a hypothesis for the evolutionary transitions from abiotic geochemistry to chemoautotrophic prokaryotes, and from prokaryotes to nucleated cells. Philosophical transactions of the Royal Society of London. Series B, Biological sciences, 358(1429), 59-83; discussion 83-5. Available at: http://rstb.royalsocietypublishing.org/content/358/1429/59.abstract [royalsocie...ishing.org].

    And here's a similar but competing hypothesis (still based on Fe/Ni-S, but with a different idea on the origins of membranes and cells):

    Wächtershäuser, G., 2006. From volcanic origins of chemoautotrophic life to Bacteria, Archaea and Eukarya. Philosophical transactions of the Royal Society of London. Series B, Biological sciences, 361(1474), 1787-806; discussion 1806-8. Available at: http://rstb.royalsocietypublishing.org/content/361/1474/1787.abstract [royalsocie...ishing.org]

    The latter author has been writing papers about this hypothesis since 1992 (though I haven't read his first paper on the subject).

    Point being, this doesn't seem to be a new thing, especially as summarized in the summary here and in the linked article. The original paper on which the article is based [biolbull.org] offers a bit more fundamental chemical details regarding the transition metals involved, and suggests good directions for experimental confirmation or refutation, but the overall idea remains pretty much the same, it seems. Still, it will be interesting to see what, if any, research and experiments result from this.

    • Yes this is old news. Inorganic biochemistry classes and advanced organic classes introduce the subject matter by talking about the levels of metals in the oceans. They go on to teach that common metal ligands and enzymes have affinities for certain metals based on their levels in oceans many years ago. So at least in my experience as a biochemistry and chemistry student, this stuff is old news. But it's interesting!
  • 'nuff said.
  • You heathens do not understand that any attempt at finding the origin of life is a direct insult to God! The devil made transition elements!
  • by drooling-dog (189103) on Sunday September 05, 2010 @09:10PM (#33484924)

    Well, I know everybody's just joking around here, but...

    One of the more exciting papers I've read in this area appeared in Nature a little while back (14 May 2009). It shows not only that activated ribonucleotides could have been formed directly from simple molecules that were plausibly present on the early earth, but that the necessary reactions are of high yield, are catalyzed by inorganic phosphates, and take place under mild conditions. Because the ribonucleotides are formed as the phosphates ("activated"), they're suitable for polymerization to RNA under similarly mild conditions.

    To me, this seals the deal for RNA the same way that Miller-Urey did for amino acids, and maybe even more so (because the reactions take place under ambient conditions, no lightning bolts needed). It's widely thought that early forms of life were based on RNA rather than DNA, so there you go. Now we just need to figure out how to make a ribosome.

    See Powner et.al., "Synthesis of activated pyrimidine ribonucleotides in prebiotically plausible conditions," Nature 459, 239-242 (2009).

    Sorry for the geekiness here, but of you know a little organic chemistry you'll find this really cool...

    • by interactive_civilian (205158) <mamoru@gm[ ].com ['ail' in gap]> on Sunday September 05, 2010 @10:44PM (#33485396) Homepage Journal

      You really shouldn't need to apologize for "geekiness" on Slashdot. If we can't reference and/or link to actual scientific research without apology, then something must be very wrong with this site. ;)

      That said, the paper you mentioned looks really interesting. AND, a Google Scholar search [google.com] offers a link to a freely downloadable PDF for those of you, like myself, that don't have access to Nature.

      I'm looking forward to reading this. :)

      • by spota (1894698)
        Yeah, that's a very recommendable article but I find it always so hard to convey the coolness to non chemists. A car simil would be that we've discovered a way that engines can easily be assembled from it's parts using only every-day movements of bored monkeys locked in a locomotive factory... there, I think the simil is complete!
    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      It's widely thought that early forms of life were based on RNA rather than DNA, so there you go.

      In particular, TFA (at least as characterized by the slashdot article) seems to be hunting for a "missing link" programmable catalyst bridging a perceived gap between DNA/RNA and proteins for chemical synthesis, and proposing transition element complexes to fill this gap. But RNA works just fine as self-folding charge/shape/leverage-based molecular machinery, as well as self-copying genetic information "tapes".

  • by Anonymous Coward

    It is a good choice and happens to be atomic number 42. Google 42 if this number doen't meaning anything special to you.

  • First of, full points for using the term "experimentally testable" in this article. Don't let those physics nerds push you around! I swear, those guys use "experimentally testable" as a pronoun... But I digress.

    This was at the very end of TFA, so no one may have read it:

    "It's a conjecture at the moment, but it could become a formal scientific core for the emergence of life."

    Wha?! Are they kidding? This has been published by an apparently respected research organization. It became 'fact' less than 24 hou

  • In fact it has been solved for some time. The basic process involved are well understood. But most people can't or don't think large enough to consider the entire contents of the solar system, or the huge number of different processes and resultants involved. Harold Morowitz has been doing so for years. His Energy Flow In Biology is a deceptively small book describing how life could have arisen (in fact probably had to) from the elements and energy available in this region of the solar system, which became

  • Samzenpus wrote:
    "biological catalysts (proteins or ribozymes)"
    Shorter sentence would be correct: "biological catalysts (enzymes)".
    There are protein enzymes or RNA enzymes, and not all proteins are enzymes.

  • We have fundamental molecules like hemoglobin (Fe), and an analog in arthropods(Cu). (may be Hemoglobin is the analog :) ) These are fundamental to oxygen transportation, and are based on transitional metals. These are not really complex molecules... and the transitional metals are fairly prominent in key structures within living organisms. Is it really that big of a surprise that these forms may have appeared first?

    The fossil/geologic record would indicate that some prototypical form of chlorophyll a

  • I heard Hazen's audio book [teach12.com] on the life's origins a few months back. He discusses how life may have began in an extreme environment( hi P, hi T, hi PH) before migrating to the more mild ecological niches it occupies today. Certain basic reactions that need catalysts/enzymes now may have had less of a need for those in an extreme environment. Then these catalysts which themselves are carbo-proteins could bootstap from other proteins, allowing life to move into the less extreme environments.
    • by RockDoctor (15477)

      Hazen's dead-tree books are worth a read too. Without digging mine off the shelf in the other room, I think that he's shared lab space or mind-space with Morowitz as well.
      I didn't see much in the summary that was new to me, but I know that I've been an interested follower of origin-of-life studies for a lot longer than most people I've heard of, and almost everyone that I know. (For example, Dad, who was a professional chemist, acknowledges the importance of the subject but doesn't really get excited about

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