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Life, Volume 9, Issue 1 (March 2019)

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Open AccessReview Role of Mineral Surfaces in Prebiotic Chemical Evolution. In Silico Quantum Mechanical Studies
Life 2019, 9(1), 10; https://doi.org/10.3390/life9010010 (registering DOI)
Received: 1 December 2018 / Revised: 10 January 2019 / Accepted: 12 January 2019 / Published: 17 January 2019
Abstract
There is a consensus that the interaction of organic molecules with the surfaces of naturally-occurring minerals might have played a crucial role in chemical evolution and complexification in a prebiotic era. The hurdle of an overly diluted primordial soup occurring in the free
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There is a consensus that the interaction of organic molecules with the surfaces of naturally-occurring minerals might have played a crucial role in chemical evolution and complexification in a prebiotic era. The hurdle of an overly diluted primordial soup occurring in the free ocean may have been overcome by the adsorption and concentration of relevant molecules on the surface of abundant minerals at the sea shore. Specific organic–mineral interactions could, at the same time, organize adsorbed molecules in well-defined orientations and activate them toward chemical reactions, bringing to an increase in chemical complexity. As experimental approaches cannot easily provide details at atomic resolution, the role of in silico computer simulations may fill that gap by providing structures and reactive energy profiles at the organic–mineral interface regions. Accordingly, numerous computational studies devoted to prebiotic chemical evolution induced by organic–mineral interactions have been proposed. The present article aims at reviewing recent in silico works, mainly focusing on prebiotic processes occurring on the mineral surfaces of clays, iron sulfides, titanium dioxide, and silica and silicates simulated through quantum mechanical methods based on the density functional theory (DFT). The DFT is the most accurate way in which chemists may address the behavior of the molecular world through large models mimicking chemical complexity. A perspective on possible future scenarios of research using in silico techniques is finally proposed. Full article
(This article belongs to the Special Issue Minerals and Origins of Life)
Open AccessArticle Thermodynamics of Duplication Thresholds in Synthetic Protocell Systems
Received: 31 October 2018 / Revised: 8 January 2019 / Accepted: 9 January 2019 / Published: 15 January 2019
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Abstract
Understanding the thermodynamics of the duplication process is a fundamental step towards a comprehensive physical theory of biological systems. However, the immense complexity of real cells obscures the fundamental tensions between energy gradients and entropic contributions that underlie duplication. The study of synthetic,
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Understanding the thermodynamics of the duplication process is a fundamental step towards a comprehensive physical theory of biological systems. However, the immense complexity of real cells obscures the fundamental tensions between energy gradients and entropic contributions that underlie duplication. The study of synthetic, feasible systems reproducing part of the key ingredients of living entities but overcoming major sources of biological complexity is of great relevance to deepen the comprehension of the fundamental thermodynamic processes underlying life and its prevalence. In this paper an abstract—yet realistic—synthetic system made of small synthetic protocell aggregates is studied in detail. A fundamental relation between free energy and entropic gradients is derived for a general, non-equilibrium scenario, setting the thermodynamic conditions for the occurrence and prevalence of duplication phenomena. This relation sets explicitly how the energy gradients invested in creating and maintaining structural—and eventually, functional—elements of the system must always compensate the entropic gradients, whose contributions come from changes in the translational, configurational, and macrostate entropies, as well as from dissipation due to irreversible transitions. Work/energy relations are also derived, defining lower bounds on the energy required for the duplication event to take place. A specific example including real ternary emulsions is provided in order to grasp the orders of magnitude involved in the problem. It is found that the minimal work invested over the system to trigger a duplication event is around ~ 10 - 13 J , which results, in the case of duplication of all the vesicles contained in a liter of emulsion, in an amount of energy around ~ 1 kJ . Without aiming to describe a truly biological process of duplication, this theoretical contribution seeks to explicitly define and identify the key actors that participate in it. Full article
(This article belongs to the Special Issue Synthetic Biology: From Living Computers to Terraformation)
Open AccessArticle Unevolved De Novo Proteins Have Innate Tendencies to Bind Transition Metals
Received: 24 September 2018 / Revised: 31 December 2018 / Accepted: 4 January 2019 / Published: 9 January 2019
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Abstract
Life as we know it would not exist without the ability of protein sequences to bind metal ions. Transition metals, in particular, play essential roles in a wide range of structural and catalytic functions. The ubiquitous occurrence of metalloproteins in all organisms leads
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Life as we know it would not exist without the ability of protein sequences to bind metal ions. Transition metals, in particular, play essential roles in a wide range of structural and catalytic functions. The ubiquitous occurrence of metalloproteins in all organisms leads one to ask whether metal binding is an evolved trait that occurred only rarely in ancestral sequences, or alternatively, whether it is an innate property of amino acid sequences, occurring frequently in unevolved sequence space. To address this question, we studied 52 proteins from a combinatorial library of novel sequences designed to fold into 4-helix bundles. Although these sequences were neither designed nor evolved to bind metals, the majority of them have innate tendencies to bind the transition metals copper, cobalt, and zinc with high nanomolar to low-micromolar affinity. Full article
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Open AccessEditorial Acknowledgement to Reviewers of Life in 2018
Published: 9 January 2019
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Abstract
Rigorous peer-review is the corner-stone of high-quality academic publishing [...] Full article
Open AccessOpinion Real-World Synthetic Biology: Is It Founded on an Engineering Approach, and Should It Be?
Received: 21 November 2018 / Revised: 20 December 2018 / Accepted: 29 December 2018 / Published: 7 January 2019
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Abstract
Authors often assert that a key feature of 21st-century synthetic biology is its use of an ‘engineering approach’; design using predictive models, modular architecture, construction using well-characterized standard parts, and rigorous testing using standard metrics. This article examines whether this is, or even
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Authors often assert that a key feature of 21st-century synthetic biology is its use of an ‘engineering approach’; design using predictive models, modular architecture, construction using well-characterized standard parts, and rigorous testing using standard metrics. This article examines whether this is, or even should be, the case. A brief survey of synthetic biology projects that have reached, or are near to, commercial application outside laboratories shows that they showed very few of these attributes. Instead, they featured much trial and error, and the use of specialized, custom components and assays. What is more, consideration of the special features of living systems suggest that a conventional engineering approach will often not be helpful. The article concludes that the engineering approach may be useful in some projects, but it should not be used to define or constrain synthetic biological endeavour, and that in fact the conventional engineering has more to gain by expanding and embracing more biological ways of working. Full article
(This article belongs to the Special Issue Synthetic Biology: From Living Computers to Terraformation)
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Open AccessPerspective The Hidden Charm of Life
Received: 26 November 2018 / Revised: 28 December 2018 / Accepted: 2 January 2019 / Published: 7 January 2019
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Abstract
Synthetic biology is an engineering view on biotechnology, which has revolutionized genetic engineering. The field has seen a constant development of metaphors that tend to highlight the similarities of cells with machines. I argue here that living organisms, particularly bacterial cells, are not
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Synthetic biology is an engineering view on biotechnology, which has revolutionized genetic engineering. The field has seen a constant development of metaphors that tend to highlight the similarities of cells with machines. I argue here that living organisms, particularly bacterial cells, are not machine-like, engineerable entities, but, instead, factory-like complex systems shaped by evolution. A change of the comparative paradigm in synthetic biology from machines to factories, from hardware to software, and from informatics to economy is discussed. Full article
(This article belongs to the Special Issue Synthetic Biology: From Living Computers to Terraformation)
Open AccessArticle Metatranscriptomic Analysis of the Bacterial Symbiont Dactylopiibacterium carminicum from the Carmine Cochineal Dactylopius coccus (Hemiptera: Coccoidea: Dactylopiidae)
Received: 9 October 2018 / Revised: 14 December 2018 / Accepted: 25 December 2018 / Published: 3 January 2019
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Abstract
The scale insect Dactylopius coccus produces high amounts of carminic acid, which has historically been used as a pigment by pre-Hispanic American cultures. Nowadays carmine is found in food, cosmetics, and textiles. Metagenomic approaches revealed that Dactylopius spp. cochineals contain two Wolbachia strains,
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The scale insect Dactylopius coccus produces high amounts of carminic acid, which has historically been used as a pigment by pre-Hispanic American cultures. Nowadays carmine is found in food, cosmetics, and textiles. Metagenomic approaches revealed that Dactylopius spp. cochineals contain two Wolbachia strains, a betaproteobacterium named Candidatus Dactylopiibacterium carminicum and Spiroplasma, in addition to different fungi. We describe here a transcriptomic analysis indicating that Dactylopiibacterium is metabolically active inside the insect host, and estimate that there are over twice as many Dactylopiibacterium cells in the hemolymph than in the gut, with even fewer in the ovary. Albeit scarce, the transcripts in the ovaries support the presence of Dactylopiibacterium in this tissue and a vertical mode of transmission. In the cochineal, Dactylopiibacterium may catabolize plant polysaccharides, and be active in carbon and nitrogen provisioning through its degradative activity and by fixing nitrogen. In most insects, nitrogen-fixing bacteria are found in the gut, but in this study they are shown to occur in the hemolymph, probably delivering essential amino acids and riboflavin to the host from nitrogen substrates derived from nitrogen fixation. Full article
(This article belongs to the Special Issue Evolution of Mutualistic Symbiosis)
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Open AccessOpinion Is Research on “Synthetic Cells” Moving to the Next Level?
Received: 4 December 2018 / Revised: 20 December 2018 / Accepted: 21 December 2018 / Published: 26 December 2018
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Abstract
“Synthetic cells” research focuses on the construction of cell-like models by using solute-filled artificial microcompartments with a biomimetic structure. In recent years this bottom-up synthetic biology area has considerably progressed, and the field is currently experiencing a rapid expansion. Here we summarize some
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“Synthetic cells” research focuses on the construction of cell-like models by using solute-filled artificial microcompartments with a biomimetic structure. In recent years this bottom-up synthetic biology area has considerably progressed, and the field is currently experiencing a rapid expansion. Here we summarize some technical and theoretical aspects of synthetic cells based on gene expression and other enzymatic reactions inside liposomes, and comment on the most recent trends. Such a tour will be an occasion for asking whether times are ripe for a sort of qualitative jump toward novel SC prototypes: is research on “synthetic cells” moving to a next level? Full article
(This article belongs to the Special Issue Approaches toward Artificial Cell Construction and Applications)
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Open AccessArticle Genomic Signals of Adaptation towards Mutualism and Sociality in Two Ambrosia Beetle Complexes
Received: 14 October 2018 / Revised: 8 December 2018 / Accepted: 20 December 2018 / Published: 22 December 2018
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Abstract
Mutualistic symbiosis and eusociality have developed through gradual evolutionary processes at different times in specific lineages. Like some species of termites and ants, ambrosia beetles have independently evolved a mutualistic nutritional symbiosis with fungi, which has been associated with the evolution of complex
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Mutualistic symbiosis and eusociality have developed through gradual evolutionary processes at different times in specific lineages. Like some species of termites and ants, ambrosia beetles have independently evolved a mutualistic nutritional symbiosis with fungi, which has been associated with the evolution of complex social behaviors in some members of this group. We sequenced the transcriptomes of two ambrosia complexes (Euwallacea sp. near fornicatusFusarium euwallaceae and Xyleborus glabratus–Raffaelea lauricola) to find evolutionary signatures associated with mutualism and behavior evolution. We identified signatures of positive selection in genes related to nutrient homeostasis; regulation of gene expression; development and function of the nervous system, which may be involved in diet specialization; behavioral changes; and social evolution in this lineage. Finally, we found convergent changes in evolutionary rates of proteins across lineages with phylogenetically independent origins of sociality and mutualism, suggesting a constrained evolution of conserved genes in social species, and an evolutionary rate acceleration related to changes in selective pressures in mutualistic lineages. Full article
(This article belongs to the Special Issue Evolution of Mutualistic Symbiosis)
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Open AccessReview Cyanobacterial Septal Junctions: Properties and Regulation
Received: 12 November 2018 / Revised: 12 December 2018 / Accepted: 16 December 2018 / Published: 20 December 2018
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Abstract
Heterocyst-forming cyanobacteria are multicellular organisms that grow as chains of cells (filaments or trichomes) in which the cells exchange regulators and nutrients. In this article, we review the morphological, physiological and genetic data that have led to our current understanding of intercellular communication
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Heterocyst-forming cyanobacteria are multicellular organisms that grow as chains of cells (filaments or trichomes) in which the cells exchange regulators and nutrients. In this article, we review the morphological, physiological and genetic data that have led to our current understanding of intercellular communication in these organisms. Intercellular molecular exchange appears to take place by simple diffusion through proteinaceous structures, known as septal junctions, which connect the adjacent cells in the filament and traverse the septal peptidoglycan through perforations known as nanopores. Proteins that are necessary to produce, and that may be components of, the septal junctions―SepJ, FraC and FraD―have been identified in the heterocyst-forming cyanobacterium Anabaena sp. strain PCC 7120 model. Additionally, several proteins that are necessary to produce a normal number of nanopores and functional septal junctions have been identified, including AmiC-type amidases, peptidoglycan-binding proteins and some membrane transporters. Available reports and reevaluation of intercellular molecular transfer data for some mutants of Anabaena suggest that the septal junctions can be regulated, likely by a mechanism of gating. Full article
(This article belongs to the Special Issue Developmental Biology in Cyanobacteria)
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