Abstract: The endoergic nature of protein and nucleic acid assembly in aqueous media presents two questions that are fundamental to the understanding of life’s origins: (i) how did the polymers arise in an aqueous prebiotic world; and (ii) once formed in some manner, how were they sufficiently persistent to engage in further chemistry. We propose here a quantitative resolution of these issues that evolved from recent accounts in which RNA-like polymers were produced in evaporation/rehydration cycles. The equilibrium Nm + Nn ↔ Nm+n + H2O is endoergic by about 3.3 kcal/mol for polynucleotide formation, and the system thus lies far to the left in the starting solutions. Kinetic simulations of the evaporation showed that simple Le Châtelier’s principle shifts were insufficient, but the introduction of oligomer-stabilizing factors of 5–10 kcal/mol both moved the process to the right and respectively boosted and retarded the elongation and hydrolysis rates. Molecular crowding and excluded volume effects in present-day cells yield stabilizing factors of that order, and we argue here that the crowded conditions in the evaporites generate similar effects. Oligomer formation is thus energetically preferred in those settings, but the process is thwarted in each evaporation step as diffusion becomes rate limiting. Rehydration dissipates disordered oligomer clusters in the evaporites, however, and subsequent dry/wet cycling accordingly “ratchets up” the system to an ultimate population of kinetically trappedthermodynamically preferred biopolymers.
Abstract: The abundance of mammalian long intergenic non-coding RNA (lincRNA) genes is high, yet their functions remain largely unknown. One possible way to study this important question is to use large-scale comparisons of various characteristics of lincRNA with those of protein-coding genes for which a large body of functional information is available. A prominent feature of mammalian protein-coding genes is the high evolutionary conservation of the exon-intron structure. Comparative analysis of putative intron positions in lincRNA genes from various mammalian genomes suggests that some lincRNA introns have been conserved for over 100 million years, thus the primary and/or secondary structure of these molecules is likely to be functionally important.
Abstract: The mystery of the origin of life can be divided into two parts. The first part is the origin of biomolecules: under what physicochemical conditions did biomolecules such as amino acids, nucleotides, and their polymers arise? The second part of the mystery is the origin of life-specific functions such as the replication of genetic information, the reproduction of cellular structures, metabolism, and evolution. These functions require the coordination of many different kinds of biological molecules. A direct strategy to approach the second part of the mystery is the constructive approach, in which life-specific functions are recreated in a test tube from specific biological molecules. Using this approach, we are able to employ design principles to reproduce life-specific functions, and the knowledge gained through the reproduction process provides clues as to their origins. In this mini-review, we introduce recent insights gained using this approach, and propose important future directions for advancing our understanding of the origins of life.
Abstract: Life on Earth provides a unique biological record from single-cell microbes to technologically intelligent life forms. Our evolution is marked by several major steps or innovations along a path of increasing complexity from microbes to space-faring humans. Here we identify various major key innovations, and use an analytical toolset consisting of a set of models to analyse how likely each key innovation is to occur. Our conclusion is that once the origin of life is accomplished, most of the key innovations can occur rather readily. The conclusion for other worlds is that if the origin of life can occur rather easily, we should live in a cosmic zoo, as the innovations necessary to lead to complex life will occur with high probability given sufficient time and habitat. On the other hand, if the origin of life is rare, then we might live in a rather empty universe.
Abstract: We have explored the use of optical oxygen electrodes to study oxygenic photosynthesis and heterotrophic activities in crystallizer brines of the salterns in Eilat, Israel. Monitoring oxygen uptake rates in the dark enables the identification of organic substrates that are preferentially used by the community. Addition of glycerol (the osmotic solute synthesized by Dunaliella) or dihydroxyacetone (produced from glycerol by Salinibacter) enhanced respiration rates. Pyruvate, produced from glycerol or from some sugars by certain halophilic Archaea also stimulated community respiration. Fumarate had a sparing effect on respiration, possibly as many halophilic Archaea can use fumarate as a terminal electron acceptor in respiration. Calculating the photosynthetic activity of Dunaliella by monitoring oxygen concentration changes during light/dark incubations is not straightforward as light also affects respiration of some halophilic Archaea and Bacteria due to action of light-driven proton pumps. When illuminated, community respiration of brine samples in which oxygenic photosynthesis was inhibited by DCMU decreased by ~40%. This effect was interpreted as the result of competition between two energy yielding systems: the bacteriorhodopsin proton pump and the respiratory chain of the prokaryotes. These findings have important implications for the interpretation of other published data on photosynthetic and respiratory activities in hypersaline environments.
Abstract: 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.