Synthetic biology yielding clues to how life began on Earth

February 16th, 2009 - 1:13 pm ICT by ANI  

Washington, February 16 (ANI): Synthetic biology researchers at the University of California, Santa Cruz, say that their efforts are yielding clues to the mystery of how life began on Earth.
Biochemist David Deamer, who has been researching the origin of life for over two decades, said so while making a presentation at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) in Chicago recently.
He said that life began with complex systems of molecules that came together through the self-assembly of nonliving components.
As to how that happened, he said that it could be found in combinatorial chemistry, an approach in which thousands of experiments are carried out in parallel by robotic devices.
“I look at the origin of life as the result of combinatorial chemistry on a global scale,” said Deamer, a research professor of chemistry and biochemistry at UCSC who is also affiliated with the Department of Biomolecular Engineering in UCSC’’s Jack Baskin School of Engineering.
The researcher says that the power of combinatorial chemistry lies in the vast numbers of structurally distinct molecules that can be synthesized and tested at the same time.
In the same way, he adds, conditions on the early Earth allowed not only the synthesis of a wide variety of complex organic molecules, but also the formation of membrane-bound compartments that would have encapsulated different combinations of molecules.
“We have made protocells in the lab–artificial compartments containing complex systems of molecules,” Deamer said.
“The creationists charge that it’’s too unlikely for the right combination to have come together on its own, but combinatorial chemistry gives us a better way to think about the probability of life emerging from this process,” he added.
Deamer suggests that life began when one or a few protocells happened to have a mix of components that could capture energy and nutrients from the environment, and use them to grow and reproduce.
Though his team have yet to replicate the process in the laboratory, he is optimistic that scientists will eventually be able to assemble a living cell from a parts list, and thereby achieve a better understanding of how life began.
According to Deamer, the first forms of life did not evolve in the usual sense, he said, but simply grew.
“Evolution began when large populations of cells had variations that led to different metabolic efficiencies. If the populations were in a confined environment, at some point they would begin to compete for limited resources, he said.
The first evolutionary selection processes would have favoured those organisms that were most efficient in capturing energy and nutrients from the local environment, he said.
Deamer is presently writing a book about the origin of life, to be published by UC Press. (ANI)

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