In order to address one of the most deeply unanswered questions in biology, a team led by Rutgers has discovered the structures of proteins that may be responsible for the origins of life in the primordial stew of ancient Earth.
The study appears in the journal science progress.
Researchers have discovered how primitive life on our planet arose from simple non-living materials. They asked what properties define life as we know it and concluded that anything alive needs to collect and use energy, from sources like the sun or hydrothermal vents.
In molecular terms, this could mean that the ability to shuffle electrons is critical to life. Since the best elements for electron transfer are metals (think standard electrical wires) and most biological activities are carried out by proteins, the researchers decided to explore a combination of the two—that is, proteins that bind metals.
They compared all existing protein structures that bind metals to establish any common features, based on the hypothesis that these common features were present in ancestral proteins and diversified and passed down to create the set of proteins we see today.
The evolution of protein structures entails understanding how new folds arise from previously existing folds, so the researchers designed a computational method that found that the vast majority of metal-bound proteins in existence today are fairly similar regardless of the type of metal they bind to, and the organism. come from or the function assigned to the protein as a whole.
“We’ve seen that the metal-binding nuclei of the proteins present are actually similar even though the proteins themselves may not be,” said study lead author Jana Bromberg, a professor in the Department of Biochemistry and Microbiology at Rutgers University in New Brunswick. “We’ve also seen that these metal-binding nuclei often consist of repeating structures, sort of like LEGO blocks. Oddly enough, these clumps are also found in other regions of proteins, not just metal-binding nuclei, and in many other proteins that haven’t been taken.” Our observation suggests that rearrangements of these small building blocks may have had one or a small number of common ancestors and gave rise to the full range of proteins and their functions currently available—that is, for life as we know it.”
“We have very little information about how life originated on this planet, and our work contributes to an explanation that was previously unavailable,” said Bromberg, whose research focuses on deciphering the DNA blueprints of the molecular machinery of life. “This interpretation could also contribute to our search for life on other planets and planetary bodies. Our discovery of specific structural building blocks is also likely to be relevant to synthetic biology efforts, as scientists aim to build particularly active proteins anew.”
The study, which was funded by NASA, included researchers from the University of Buenos Aires.
Scientists have discovered the origins of the basic building blocks of life
Jana Bromberg, suggests defining the structural relationships of metal-binding sites the origins of biological electron transport, science progress (2022). DOI: 10.1126 / sciadv.abj3984. www.science.org/doi/10.1126/sciadv.abj3984
Presented by Rutgers University
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