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Life, Volume 9, Issue 1 (March 2019)

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Open AccessReview The Astrophysical Formation of Asymmetric Molecules and the Emergence of a Chiral Bias
Received: 22 February 2019 / Revised: 11 March 2019 / Accepted: 11 March 2019 / Published: 16 March 2019
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Abstract
The biomolecular homochirality in living organisms has been investigated for decades, but its origin remains poorly understood. It has been shown that circular polarized light (CPL) and other energy sources are capable of inducing small enantiomeric excesses (ees) in some primary [...] Read more.
The biomolecular homochirality in living organisms has been investigated for decades, but its origin remains poorly understood. It has been shown that circular polarized light (CPL) and other energy sources are capable of inducing small enantiomeric excesses (ees) in some primary biomolecules, such as amino acids or sugars. Since the first findings of amino acids in carbonaceous meteorites, a scenario in which essential chiral biomolecules originate in space and are delivered by celestial bodies has arisen. Numerous studies have thus focused on their detection, identification, and enantiomeric excess calculations in extraterrestrial matrices. In this review we summarize the discoveries in amino acids, sugars, and organophosphorus compounds in meteorites, comets, and laboratory-simulated interstellar ices. Based on available analytical data, we also discuss their interactions with CPL in the ultraviolet (UV) and vacuum ultraviolet (VUV) regions, their abiotic chiral or achiral synthesis, and their enantiomeric distribution. Without doubt, further laboratory investigations and upcoming space missions are required to shed more light on our potential extraterrestrial molecular origins. Full article
(This article belongs to the Special Issue The Origin of Chirality in Life (Chiral Symmetry Breaking))
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Open AccessArticle Entropic Analysis of Mirror Symmetry Breaking in Chiral Hypercycles
Received: 14 February 2019 / Revised: 8 March 2019 / Accepted: 11 March 2019 / Published: 15 March 2019
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Abstract
Replicators are fundamental to the origin of life and evolvability. Biology exhibits homochirality: only one of two enantiomers is used in proteins and nucleic acids. Thermodynamic studies of chemical replicators able to lead to homochirality shed valuable light on the origin of homochirality [...] Read more.
Replicators are fundamental to the origin of life and evolvability. Biology exhibits homochirality: only one of two enantiomers is used in proteins and nucleic acids. Thermodynamic studies of chemical replicators able to lead to homochirality shed valuable light on the origin of homochirality and life in conformity with the underlying mechanisms and constraints. In line with this framework, enantioselective hypercyclic replicators may lead to spontaneous mirror symmetry breaking (SMSB) without the need for additional heterochiral inhibition reactions, which can be an obstacle for the emergence of evolutionary selection properties. We analyze the entropy production of a two-replicator system subject to homochiral cross-catalysis which can undergo SMSB in an open-flow reactor. The entropy exchange with the environment is provided by the input and output matter flows, and is essential for balancing the entropy production at the non-equilibrium stationary states. The partial entropy contributions, associated with the individual elementary flux modes, as defined by stoichiometric network analysis (SNA), describe how the system’s internal currents evolve, maintaining the balance between entropy production and exchange, while minimizing the entropy production after the symmetry breaking transition. We validate the General Evolution Criterion, stating that the change in the chemical affinities proceeds in a way as to lower the value of the entropy production. Full article
(This article belongs to the Special Issue The Origin of Chirality in Life (Chiral Symmetry Breaking))
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Open AccessPerspective Successive Paradigm Shifts in the Bacterial Cell Cycle and Related Subjects
Received: 6 August 2018 / Revised: 28 February 2019 / Accepted: 4 March 2019 / Published: 7 March 2019
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Abstract
A paradigm shift in one field can trigger paradigm shifts in other fields. This is illustrated by the paradigm shifts that have occurred in bacterial physiology following the discoveries that bacteria are not unstructured, that the bacterial cell cycle is not controlled by [...] Read more.
A paradigm shift in one field can trigger paradigm shifts in other fields. This is illustrated by the paradigm shifts that have occurred in bacterial physiology following the discoveries that bacteria are not unstructured, that the bacterial cell cycle is not controlled by the dynamics of peptidoglycan, and that the growth rates of bacteria in the same steady-state population are not at all the same. These paradigm shifts are having an effect on longstanding hypotheses about the regulation of the bacterial cell cycle, which appear increasingly to be inadequate. I argue that, just as one earthquake can trigger others, an imminent paradigm shift in the regulation of the bacterial cell cycle will have repercussions or “paradigm quakes” on hypotheses about the origins of life and about the regulation of the eukaryotic cell cycle. Full article
(This article belongs to the Section Hypotheses in the Life Sciences)
Open AccessReview How Prebiotic Chemistry and Early Life Chose Phosphate
Received: 5 February 2019 / Revised: 23 February 2019 / Accepted: 25 February 2019 / Published: 3 March 2019
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Abstract
The very specific thermodynamic instability and kinetic stability of phosphate esters and anhydrides impart them invaluable properties in living organisms in which highly efficient enzyme catalysts compensate for their low intrinsic reactivity. Considering their role in protein biosynthesis, these properties raise a paradox [...] Read more.
The very specific thermodynamic instability and kinetic stability of phosphate esters and anhydrides impart them invaluable properties in living organisms in which highly efficient enzyme catalysts compensate for their low intrinsic reactivity. Considering their role in protein biosynthesis, these properties raise a paradox about early stages: How could these species be selected in the absence of enzymes? This review is aimed at demonstrating that considering mixed anhydrides or other species more reactive than esters and anhydrides can help in solving the paradox. The consequences of this approach for chemical evolution and early stages of life are analysed. Full article
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Open AccessArticle The Origin of Prebiotic Information System in the Peptide/RNA World: A Simulation Model of the Evolution of Translation and the Genetic Code
Received: 13 December 2018 / Revised: 9 January 2019 / Accepted: 25 February 2019 / Published: 1 March 2019
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Abstract
Information is the currency of life, but the origin of prebiotic information remains a mystery. We propose transitional pathways from the cosmic building blocks of life to the complex prebiotic organic chemistry that led to the origin of information systems. The prebiotic information [...] Read more.
Information is the currency of life, but the origin of prebiotic information remains a mystery. We propose transitional pathways from the cosmic building blocks of life to the complex prebiotic organic chemistry that led to the origin of information systems. The prebiotic information system, specifically the genetic code, is segregated, linear, and digital, and it appeared before the emergence of DNA. In the peptide/RNA world, lipid membranes randomly encapsulated amino acids, RNA, and peptide molecules, which are drawn from the prebiotic soup, to initiate a molecular symbiosis inside the protocells. This endosymbiosis led to the hierarchical emergence of several requisite components of the translation machine: transfer RNAs (tRNAs), aminoacyl-tRNA synthetase (aaRS), messenger RNAs (mRNAs), ribosomes, and various enzymes. When assembled in the right order, the translation machine created proteins, a process that transferred information from mRNAs to assemble amino acids into polypeptide chains. This was the beginning of the prebiotic information age. The origin of the genetic code is enigmatic; herein, we propose an evolutionary explanation: the demand for a wide range of protein enzymes over peptides in the prebiotic reactions was the main selective pressure for the origin of information-directed protein synthesis. The molecular basis of the genetic code manifests itself in the interaction of aaRS and their cognate tRNAs. In the beginning, aminoacylated ribozymes used amino acids as a cofactor with the help of bridge peptides as a process for selection between amino acids and their cognate codons/anticodons. This process selects amino acids and RNA species for the next steps. The ribozymes would give rise to pre-tRNA and the bridge peptides to pre-aaRS. Later, variants would appear and evolution would produce different but specific aaRS-tRNA-amino acid combinations. Pre-tRNA designed and built pre-mRNA for the storage of information regarding its cognate amino acid. Each pre-mRNA strand became the storage device for the genetic information that encoded the amino acid sequences in triplet nucleotides. As information appeared in the digital languages of the codon within pre-mRNA and mRNA, and the genetic code for protein synthesis evolved, the prebiotic chemistry then became more organized and directional with the emergence of the translation and genetic code. The genetic code developed in three stages that are coincident with the refinement of the translation machines: the GNC code that was developed by the pre-tRNA/pre-aaRS /pre-mRNA machine, SNS code by the tRNA/aaRS/mRNA machine, and finally the universal genetic code by the tRNA/aaRS/mRNA/ribosome machine. We suggest the coevolution of translation machines and the genetic code. The emergence of the translation machines was the beginning of the Darwinian evolution, an interplay between information and its supporting structure. Our hypothesis provides the logical and incremental steps for the origin of the programmed protein synthesis. In order to better understand the prebiotic information system, we converted letter codons into numerical codons in the Universal Genetic Code Table. We have developed a software, called CATI (Codon-Amino Acid-Translator-Imitator), to translate randomly chosen numerical codons into corresponding amino acids and vice versa. This conversion has granted us insight into how the genetic code might have evolved in the peptide/RNA world. There is great potential in the application of numerical codons to bioinformatics, such as barcoding, DNA mining, or DNA fingerprinting. We constructed the likely biochemical pathways for the origin of translation and the genetic code using the Model-View-Controller (MVC) software framework, and the translation machinery step-by-step. While using AnyLogic software, we were able to simulate and visualize the entire evolution of the translation machines, amino acids, and the genetic code. Full article
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Open AccessArticle Regeneration of Escherichia coli Giant Protoplasts to Their Original Form
Received: 4 February 2019 / Revised: 23 February 2019 / Accepted: 24 February 2019 / Published: 1 March 2019
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Abstract
The spheroplasts and protoplasts of cell wall-deficient (CWD) bacteria are able to revert to their original cellular morphologies through the regeneration of their cell walls. However, whether this is true for giant protoplasts (GPs), which can be as large as 10 μm in [...] Read more.
The spheroplasts and protoplasts of cell wall-deficient (CWD) bacteria are able to revert to their original cellular morphologies through the regeneration of their cell walls. However, whether this is true for giant protoplasts (GPs), which can be as large as 10 μm in diameter, is unknown. GPs can be prepared from various bacteria, including Escherichia coli and Bacillus subtilis, and also from fungi, through culture in the presence of inhibitors for cell wall synthesis or mitosis. In this report, we prepared GPs from E. coli and showed that they can return to rod-shaped bacterium, and that they are capable of colony formation. Microscopic investigation revealed that the regeneration process took place through a variety of morphological pathways. We also report the relationship between GP division and GP volume. Finally, we show that FtsZ is crucial for GP division. These results indicate that E. coli is a highly robust organism that can regenerate its original form from an irregular state, such as GP. Full article
(This article belongs to the Special Issue Approaches toward Artificial Cell Construction and Applications)
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Open AccessArticle Molecular Diversity Required for the Formation of Autocatalytic Sets
Received: 11 February 2019 / Revised: 21 February 2019 / Accepted: 26 February 2019 / Published: 1 March 2019
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Abstract
Systems chemistry deals with the design and study of complex chemical systems. However, such systems are often difficult to investigate experimentally. We provide an example of how theoretical and simulation-based studies can provide useful insights into the properties and dynamics of complex chemical [...] Read more.
Systems chemistry deals with the design and study of complex chemical systems. However, such systems are often difficult to investigate experimentally. We provide an example of how theoretical and simulation-based studies can provide useful insights into the properties and dynamics of complex chemical systems, in particular of autocatalytic sets. We investigate the issue of the required molecular diversity for autocatalytic sets to exist in random polymer libraries. Given a fixed probability that an arbitrary polymer catalyzes the formation of other polymers, we calculate this required molecular diversity theoretically for two particular models of chemical reaction systems, and then verify these calculations by computer simulations. We also argue that these results could be relevant to an origin of life scenario proposed recently by Damer and Deamer. Full article
(This article belongs to the Special Issue Modelling Life-Like Behavior in Systems Chemistry)
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Open AccessReview Bottom-Up Approaches to Synthetic Cooperation in Microbial Communities
Received: 3 December 2018 / Revised: 1 February 2019 / Accepted: 14 February 2019 / Published: 26 February 2019
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Abstract
Microbial cooperation pervades ecological scales, from single-species populations to host-associated microbiomes. Understanding the mechanisms promoting the stability of cooperation against potential threats by cheaters is a major question that only recently has been approached experimentally. Synthetic biology has helped to uncover some of [...] Read more.
Microbial cooperation pervades ecological scales, from single-species populations to host-associated microbiomes. Understanding the mechanisms promoting the stability of cooperation against potential threats by cheaters is a major question that only recently has been approached experimentally. Synthetic biology has helped to uncover some of these basic mechanisms, which were to some extent anticipated by theoretical predictions. Moreover, synthetic cooperation is a promising lead towards the engineering of novel functions and enhanced productivity of microbial communities. Here, we review recent progress on engineered cooperation in microbial ecosystems. We focus on bottom-up approaches that help to better understand cooperation at the population level, progressively addressing the challenges of tackling higher degrees of complexity: spatial structure, multispecies communities, and host-associated microbiomes. We envisage cooperation as a key ingredient in engineering complex microbial ecosystems. Full article
(This article belongs to the Special Issue Synthetic Biology: From Living Computers to Terraformation)
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Open AccessReview Unity Makes Strength: A Review on Mutualistic Symbiosis in Representative Insect Clades
Received: 11 December 2018 / Revised: 11 February 2019 / Accepted: 19 February 2019 / Published: 25 February 2019
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Abstract
Settled on the foundations laid by zoologists and embryologists more than a century ago, the study of symbiosis between prokaryotes and eukaryotes is an expanding field. In this review, we present several models of insect–bacteria symbioses that allow for the detangling of most [...] Read more.
Settled on the foundations laid by zoologists and embryologists more than a century ago, the study of symbiosis between prokaryotes and eukaryotes is an expanding field. In this review, we present several models of insect–bacteria symbioses that allow for the detangling of most known features of this distinctive way of living, using a combination of very diverse screening approaches, including molecular, microscopic, and genomic techniques. With the increasing the amount of endosymbiotic bacteria genomes available, it has been possible to develop evolutionary models explaining the changes undergone by these bacteria in their adaptation to the intracellular host environment. The establishment of a given symbiotic system can be a root cause of substantial changes in the partners’ way of life. Furthermore, symbiont replacement and/or the establishment of bacterial consortia are two ways in which the host can exploit its interaction with environmental bacteria for endosymbiotic reinvigoration. The detailed study of diverse and complex symbiotic systems has revealed a great variety of possible final genomic products, frequently below the limit considered compatible with cellular life, and sometimes with unanticipated genomic and population characteristics, raising new questions that need to be addressed in the near future through a wider exploration of new models and empirical observations. Full article
(This article belongs to the Special Issue Evolution of Mutualistic Symbiosis)
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Open AccessArticle Limited Sequence Diversity Within a Population Supports Prebiotic RNA Reproduction
Received: 4 February 2019 / Revised: 18 February 2019 / Accepted: 19 February 2019 / Published: 21 February 2019
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Abstract
The origins of life require the emergence of informational polymers capable of reproduction. In the RNA world on the primordial Earth, reproducible RNA molecules would have arisen from a mixture of compositionally biased, poorly available, short RNA sequences in prebiotic environments. However, it [...] Read more.
The origins of life require the emergence of informational polymers capable of reproduction. In the RNA world on the primordial Earth, reproducible RNA molecules would have arisen from a mixture of compositionally biased, poorly available, short RNA sequences in prebiotic environments. However, it remains unclear what level of sequence diversity within a small subset of population is required to initiate RNA reproduction by prebiotic mechanisms. Here, using a simulation for template-directed recombination and ligation, we explore the effect of sequence diversity in a given population for the onset of RNA reproduction. We show that RNA reproduction is improbable in low and high diversity of finite populations; however, it could robustly occur in an intermediate sequence diversity. The intermediate range broadens toward higher diversity as population size increases. We also found that emergent reproducible RNAs likely form autocatalytic networks and collectively reproduce by catalyzing the formation of each other, allowing the expansion of information capacity. These results highlight the potential of abiotic RNAs, neither abundant nor diverse, to kick-start autocatalytic reproduction through spontaneous network formation. Full article
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Open AccessHypothesis Making Molecules with Clay: Layered Double Hydroxides, Pentopyranose Nucleic Acids and the Origin of Life
Received: 2 December 2018 / Revised: 4 February 2019 / Accepted: 9 February 2019 / Published: 15 February 2019
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Abstract
A mixture of sugar diphosphates is produced in reactions between small aldehyde phosphates catalysed by layered double hydroxide (LDH) clays under plausibly prebiotic conditions. A subset of these, pentose diphosphates, constitute the backbone subunits of nucleic acids capable of base pairing, which is [...] Read more.
A mixture of sugar diphosphates is produced in reactions between small aldehyde phosphates catalysed by layered double hydroxide (LDH) clays under plausibly prebiotic conditions. A subset of these, pentose diphosphates, constitute the backbone subunits of nucleic acids capable of base pairing, which is not the case for the other products of these LDH-catalysed reactions. Not only that, but to date no other polymer found capable of base pairing—and therefore information transfer—has a backbone for which its monomer subunits have a plausible prebiotic synthesis, including the ribose-5-phosphate backbone subunit of RNA. Pentose diphosphates comprise the backbone monomers of pentopyranose nucleic acids, some of the strongest base pairing systems so far discovered. We have previously proposed that the first base pairing interactions were between purine nucleobase precursors, and that these were weaker and less specific than standard purine-pyrimidine interactions. We now propose that the inherently stronger pairing of pentopyranose nucleic acids would have compensated for these weaker interactions, and produced an informational polymer capable of undergoing nonenzymatic replication. LDH clays might also have catalysed the synthesis of the purine nucleobase precursors, and the polymerization of pentopyranose nucleotide monomers into oligonucleotides, as well as the formation of the first lipid bilayers. Full article
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Open AccessArticle Single-Frame, Multiple-Frame and Framing Motifs in Genes
Received: 17 November 2018 / Revised: 24 January 2019 / Accepted: 31 January 2019 / Published: 10 February 2019
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Abstract
We study the distribution of new classes of motifs in genes, a research field that has not been investigated to date. A single-frame motif SF has no trinucleotide in reading frame (frame 0) that occurs in a shifted frame (frame 1 or 2), [...] Read more.
We study the distribution of new classes of motifs in genes, a research field that has not been investigated to date. A single-frame motif SF has no trinucleotide in reading frame (frame 0) that occurs in a shifted frame (frame 1 or 2), e.g., the dicodon AAACAA is S F as the trinucleotides AAA and CAA do not occur in a shifted frame. A motif which is not single-frame S F is multiple-frame M F . Several classes of M F motifs are defined and analysed. The distributions of single-frame S F motifs (associated with an unambiguous trinucleotide decoding in the two 5 3 and 3 5 directions) and 5′ unambiguous motifs 5 U (associated with an unambiguous trinucleotide decoding in the 5 3 direction only) are analysed without and with constraints. The constraints studied are: initiation and stop codons, periodic codons { A A A , C C C , G G G , T T T } , antiparallel complementarity and parallel complementarity. Taken together, these results suggest that the complementarity property involved in the antiparallel (DNA double helix, RNA stem) and parallel sequences could also be fundamental for coding genes with an unambiguous trinucleotide decoding in the two 5 3 and 3 5 directions or the 5 3 direction only. Furthermore, the single-frame motifs S F with a property of trinucleotide decoding and the framing motifs F (also called circular code motifs; first introduced by Michel (2012)) with a property of reading frame decoding may have been involved in the early life genes to build the modern genetic code and the extant genes. They could have been involved in the stage without anticodon-amino acid interactions or in the Implicated Site Nucleotides (ISN) of RNA interacting with the amino acids. Finally, the S F and M F dipeptides associated with the S F and M F dicodons, respectively, are studied and their importance for biology and the origin of life discussed. Full article
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Open AccessArticle Low-Digit and High-Digit Polymers in the Origin of Life
Received: 4 January 2019 / Revised: 23 January 2019 / Accepted: 26 January 2019 / Published: 2 February 2019
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Abstract
Extant life uses two kinds of linear biopolymers that mutually control their own production, as well as the cellular metabolism and the production and homeostatic maintenance of other biopolymers. Nucleic acids are linear polymers composed of a relatively low structural variety of monomeric [...] Read more.
Extant life uses two kinds of linear biopolymers that mutually control their own production, as well as the cellular metabolism and the production and homeostatic maintenance of other biopolymers. Nucleic acids are linear polymers composed of a relatively low structural variety of monomeric residues, and thus a low diversity per accessed volume. Proteins are more compact linear polymers that dispose of a huge compositional diversity even at the monomeric level, and thus bear a much higher catalytic potential. The fine-grained diversity of proteins makes an unambiguous information transfer from protein templates too error-prone, so they need to be resynthesized in every generation. But proteins can catalyse both their own reproduction as well as the efficient and faithful replication of nucleic acids, which resolves in a most straightforward way an issue termed “Eigen’s paradox”. Here the importance of the existence of both kinds of linear biopolymers is discussed in the context of the emergence of cellular life, be it for the historic orgin of life on Earth, on some other habitable planet, or in the test tube. An immediate consequence of this analysis is the necessity for translation to appear early during the evolution of life. Full article
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Open AccessArticle Microfluidic Reactors for Carbon Fixation under Ambient-Pressure Alkaline-Hydrothermal-Vent Conditions
Received: 20 December 2018 / Revised: 22 January 2019 / Accepted: 25 January 2019 / Published: 1 February 2019
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Abstract
The alkaline-hydrothermal-vent theory for the origin of life predicts the spontaneous reduction of CO2, dissolved in acidic ocean waters, with H2 from the alkaline vent effluent. This reaction would be catalyzed by Fe(Ni)S clusters precipitated at the interface, which effectively [...] Read more.
The alkaline-hydrothermal-vent theory for the origin of life predicts the spontaneous reduction of CO2, dissolved in acidic ocean waters, with H2 from the alkaline vent effluent. This reaction would be catalyzed by Fe(Ni)S clusters precipitated at the interface, which effectively separate the two fluids into an electrochemical cell. Using microfluidic reactors, we set out to test this concept. We produced thin, long Fe(Ni)S precipitates of less than 10 µm thickness. Mixing simplified analogs of the acidic-ocean and alkaline-vent fluids, we then tested for the reduction of CO2. We were unable to detect reduced carbon products under a number of conditions. As all of our reactions were performed at atmospheric pressure, the lack of reduced carbon products may simply be attributable to the low concentration of hydrogen in our system, suggesting that high-pressure reactors may be a necessity. Full article
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Open AccessReview Synthetic Mutualism and the Intervention Dilemma
Received: 30 October 2018 / Revised: 9 January 2019 / Accepted: 23 January 2019 / Published: 28 January 2019
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Abstract
Ecosystems are complex networks of interacting individuals co-evolving with their environment. As such, changes to an interaction can influence the whole ecosystem. However, to predict the outcome of these changes, considerable understanding of processes driving the system is required. Synthetic biology provides powerful [...] Read more.
Ecosystems are complex networks of interacting individuals co-evolving with their environment. As such, changes to an interaction can influence the whole ecosystem. However, to predict the outcome of these changes, considerable understanding of processes driving the system is required. Synthetic biology provides powerful tools to aid this understanding, but these developments also allow us to change specific interactions. Of particular interest is the ecological importance of mutualism, a subset of cooperative interactions. Mutualism occurs when individuals of different species provide a reciprocal fitness benefit. We review available experimental techniques of synthetic biology focused on engineered synthetic mutualistic systems. Components of these systems have defined interactions that can be altered to model naturally occurring relationships. Integrations between experimental systems and theoretical models, each informing the use or development of the other, allow predictions to be made about the nature of complex relationships. The predictions range from stability of microbial communities in extreme environments to the collapse of ecosystems due to dangerous levels of human intervention. With such caveats, we evaluate the promise of synthetic biology from the perspective of ethics and laws regarding biological alterations, whether on Earth or beyond. Just because we are able to change something, should we? Full article
(This article belongs to the Special Issue Synthetic Biology: From Living Computers to Terraformation)
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Open AccessArticle Dynamical Task Switching in Cellular Computers
Received: 28 November 2018 / Revised: 23 December 2018 / Accepted: 23 January 2019 / Published: 26 January 2019
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Abstract
We present a scheme for implementing a version of task switching in engineered bacteria, based on the manipulation of plasmid copy numbers. Our method allows for the embedding of multiple computations in a cellular population, whilst minimising resource usage inefficiency. We describe the [...] Read more.
We present a scheme for implementing a version of task switching in engineered bacteria, based on the manipulation of plasmid copy numbers. Our method allows for the embedding of multiple computations in a cellular population, whilst minimising resource usage inefficiency. We describe the results of computational simulations of our model, and discuss the potential for future work in this area. Full article
(This article belongs to the Special Issue Synthetic Biology: From Living Computers to Terraformation)
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Open AccessReview Heterocyst Thylakoid Bioenergetics
Received: 9 December 2018 / Revised: 7 January 2019 / Accepted: 18 January 2019 / Published: 25 January 2019
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Heterocysts are specialized cells that differentiate in the filaments of heterocystous cyanobacteria. Their role is to maintain a microoxic environment for the nitrogenase enzyme during diazotrophic growth. The lack of photosynthetic water oxidation in the heterocyst puts special constraints on the energetics for [...] Read more.
Heterocysts are specialized cells that differentiate in the filaments of heterocystous cyanobacteria. Their role is to maintain a microoxic environment for the nitrogenase enzyme during diazotrophic growth. The lack of photosynthetic water oxidation in the heterocyst puts special constraints on the energetics for nitrogen fixation, and the electron transport pathways of heterocyst thylakoids are slightly different from those in vegetative cells. During recent years, there has been a growing interest in utilizing heterocysts as cell factories for the production of fuels and other chemical commodities. Optimization of these production systems requires some consideration of the bioenergetics behind nitrogen fixation. In this overview, we emphasize the role of photosynthetic electron transport in providing ATP and reductants to the nitrogenase enzyme, and provide some examples where heterocysts have been used as production facilities. Full article
(This article belongs to the Special Issue Developmental Biology in Cyanobacteria)
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Open AccessArticle Origin of Life’s Building Blocks in Carbon- and Nitrogen-Rich Surface Hydrothermal Vents
Received: 21 December 2018 / Revised: 15 January 2019 / Accepted: 19 January 2019 / Published: 24 January 2019
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Abstract
There are two dominant and contrasting classes of origin of life scenarios: those predicting that life emerged in submarine hydrothermal systems, where chemical disequilibrium can provide an energy source for nascent life; and those predicting that life emerged within subaerial environments, where UV [...] Read more.
There are two dominant and contrasting classes of origin of life scenarios: those predicting that life emerged in submarine hydrothermal systems, where chemical disequilibrium can provide an energy source for nascent life; and those predicting that life emerged within subaerial environments, where UV catalysis of reactions may occur to form the building blocks of life. Here, we describe a prebiotically plausible environment that draws on the strengths of both scenarios: surface hydrothermal vents. We show how key feedstock molecules for prebiotic chemistry can be produced in abundance in shallow and surficial hydrothermal systems. We calculate the chemistry of volcanic gases feeding these vents over a range of pressures and basalt C/N/O contents. If ultra-reducing carbon-rich nitrogen-rich gases interact with subsurface water at a volcanic vent they result in 10 3 1 M concentrations of diacetylene (C4H2), acetylene (C2H2), cyanoacetylene (HC3N), hydrogen cyanide (HCN), bisulfite (likely in the form of salts containing HSO3), hydrogen sulfide (HS) and soluble iron in vent water. One key feedstock molecule, cyanamide (CH2N2), is not formed in significant quantities within this scenario, suggesting that it may need to be delivered exogenously, or formed from hydrogen cyanide either via organometallic compounds, or by some as yet-unknown chemical synthesis. Given the likely ubiquity of surface hydrothermal vents on young, hot, terrestrial planets, these results identify a prebiotically plausible local geochemical environment, which is also amenable to future lab-based simulation. Full article
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Open AccessReview The Beginning of Systems Chemistry
Received: 2 January 2019 / Accepted: 17 January 2019 / Published: 24 January 2019
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Abstract
Systems Chemistry has its roots in the research on the autocatalytic self-replication of biological macromolecules, first of all of synthetic deoxyribonucleic acids. A personal tour through the early works of the founder of Systems Chemistry, and of his first followers, recalls what’s most [...] Read more.
Systems Chemistry has its roots in the research on the autocatalytic self-replication of biological macromolecules, first of all of synthetic deoxyribonucleic acids. A personal tour through the early works of the founder of Systems Chemistry, and of his first followers, recalls what’s most important in this new era of chemistry: the growth and evolution of compartmented macromolecular populations, when provided with “food” and “fuel” and disposed of “waste”. Full article
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Open AccessReview Role of Mineral Surfaces in Prebiotic Chemical Evolution. In Silico Quantum Mechanical Studies
Received: 1 December 2018 / Revised: 10 January 2019 / Accepted: 12 January 2019 / Published: 17 January 2019
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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 [...] Read more.
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)
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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, [...] Read more.
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)
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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 [...] Read more.
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 [...] Read more.
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 [...] Read more.
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, [...] Read more.
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 [...] Read more.
“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 [...] Read more.
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 [...] Read more.
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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