The first living systems: a bioenergetic perspective

  • Deamer D
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The first systems of molecules having the properties of the living state presumably self-assembled from a mixture of organic compounds available on the prebiotic Earth. To carry out the polymer synthesis characteristic of all forms of life, such systems would require one or more sources of energy to activate monomers to be incorporated into polymers. Possible sources of energy for this process include heat, light energy, chemical energy, and ionic potentials across membranes. These energy sources are explored here, with a particular focus on mechanisms by which self-assembled molecular aggregates could capture the energy and use it to form chemical bonds in polymers. Based on available evidence, a reasonable conjecture is that membranous vesicles were present on the prebiotic Earth and that systems of replicating and catalytic macromolecules could become encapsulated in the vesicles. In the laboratory, this can be modeled by encapsulated polymerases prepared as liposomes. By an appropriate choice of lipids, the permeability properties of the liposomes can be adjusted so that ionic substrates permeate at a sufficient rate to provide a source of monomers for the enzymes, with the result that nucleic acids accumulate in the vesicles. Despite this progress, there is still no clear mechanism by which the free energy of light, ion gradients, or redox potential can be coupled to polymer bond formation in a protocellular structure.

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  • D W Deamer

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