Chemists show life on Earth was not a fluke


How life came about from inanimate sets of chemicals is still a mystery. While we may never be certain which chemicals existed on prebiotic Earth, we can study the biomolecules we have today to give us clues about what happened three billion years ago.

Now scientists have used a set of these biomolecules to show one way in which life might have started. They found that these molecular machines, which exist in living cells today, don’t do much on their own. But as soon as they add fatty chemicals, which form a primitive version of a cell membrane, it got the chemicals close enough to react in a highly specific manner.

This form of self-organisation is remarkable, and figuring out how it happens may hold the key to understanding life on earth formed and perhaps how it might form on other planets.

The 1987 Nobel Prize in Chemistry was given to chemists for showing how complex molecules can perform very precise functions. One of the behaviours of these molecules is called self-organisation, where different chemicals come together because of the many forces acting on them and become a molecular machine capable of even more complex tasks. Each living cell is full of these molecular machines.

Pasquale Stano at the University of Roma Tre and his colleagues were interested in using this knowledge to probe the origins of life. To make things simple, they chose an assembly that produces proteins. This assembly consists of 83 different molecules including DNA, which was programmed to produce a special green fluorescent protein (GFP) that could be observed under a confocal microscope.

Written By: Andrew Bissette
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  1. I tell students that we will solve this in their lifetimes and we will synthesize life in a lab within three years. Look at the TED talk with Martin Hanczyc. His lab, or a similarly focused group in another lab, will achieve this very soon. i am thrilled.

    I also harp all day every day about self organization. Nothing designed does this. Everything evolved does. This is a smoking gun piece of evidence and should be treated as such. Way to go Pasquale! BRAVO.

  2. Could it be that this still occurs by chance somewhere in nature? But I guess that any self assembled cell will be eaten the minute it appears by some more evolved example.

  3. This discovery could prove to be the beginning of a new dawn, even though if it is it’ll probably turn out to be that of an extremely long day.

    But then, I’m a lay person prone to talking drivel about matters scientific; we shall see.

    You seem to be quite exercised by the development crookedshoes.

  4. Biologists have evolution, Physicists have the Big Bang, but as a chemist abiogenesis is the one riddle to tie the two together I’d love to see solved in my lifetime. I think I’ve seen more positive articles in this direction in the last 2 years than ever. I’m getting more and more optimistic about this one!

  5. Stano works very closely with Pier Luigi Luisi. I highly recommend Luisi’s book “The Emergence of Life: From Chemical Origins to Synthetic Biology.” Also, Jack Szostak’s lecture on is a very good web resource.

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