Saturday, October 04, 2014

Sandwalk: Metabolism first and the origin of life

Sandwalk: Metabolism first and the origin of life

I don't have time to explain it all. Here's a teaser ...
At first sight, the idea that chemiosmosis is a very ancient means of energy transduction might seem counterintuitive. More familiar to many is the old (and popular) doctrine that the most ancient pathway of energy metabolism is a fermentation such as glycolysis [77], an idea that goes back at least to Haldane [2] and hence arose long before anyone had a clue that biological energy can be harnessed in a manner that does not involve substrate-level phosphorylations and ‘high-energy’ bonds [149,150]. In modern life, all biological energy in the form of ATP comes ultimately from chemiosmotic coupling [151], the process of charge separation from the inside of the cell to the outside, and the harnessing of that electrochemical gradient via a coupling factor, an ATPase of the rotor–stator-type. It was not until the 1970s that it became generally apparent that Mitchell [152] was right, his Nobel prize coming in 1978, and it is hard to say when it became clear to microbiologists that all fermentative organisms are derived from chemiosmotic ancestors. We also note that Mitchell's consideration of the problem of the origin of life introduced key concepts of his later chemiosmotic hypothesis, including a definition of life as process, and the idea of vectorial catalysis across a membrane boundary that is inseparable either from the environment or from the organism itself [153].

The maxim that glycolysis is ancient might be an artefact of experience, since it was the first pathway both to be discovered and that we learned in college; in that sense, it really is the oldest. When one suggests that chemiosmotic coupling in methanogens or acetogens might be ancient, many listeners and readers shy away, mainly because the pathways are unfamiliar and often entail dreaded cofactor names.

Sousa, F.L., Thiergart, T., Landan, G., Nelson-Sathi, S., Pereira, I. A., Allen, J.F., Lane, N. and Martin, W.F. (2013) Early bioenergetic evolution. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 368:20130088. [doi: 10.1098/rstb.2013.0088]

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