The Origin of Life in Alkaline Hydrothermal Vents
Sojo et al
Over the last 70 years, prebiotic chemists have been very successful in synthesizing the molecules of life, from amino acids to nucleotides. Yet there is strikingly little resemblance between much of this chemistry and the metabolic pathways of cells, in terms of substrates, catalysts, and synthetic pathways. In contrast, alkaline hydrothermal vents offer conditions similar to those harnessed by modern autotrophs, but there has been limited experimental evidence that such conditions could drive prebiotic chemistry. In the Hadean, in the absence of oxygen, alkaline vents are proposed to have acted as electrochemical flow reactors, in which alkaline fluids saturated in H2 mixed with relatively acidic ocean waters rich in CO2, through a labyrinth of interconnected micropores with thin inorganic walls containing catalytic Fe(Ni)S minerals. The difference in pH across these thin barriers produced natural proton gradients with equivalent magnitude and polarity to the proton-motive force required for carbon fixation in extant bacteria and archaea. How such gradients could have powered carbon reduction or energy flux before the advent of organic protocells with genes and proteins is unknown. Work over the last decade suggests several possible hypotheses that are currently being tested in laboratory experiments, field observations, and phylogenetic reconstructions of ancestral metabolism. We analyze the perplexing differences in carbon and energy metabolism in methanogenic archaea and acetogenic bacteria to propose a possible ancestral mechanism of CO2 reduction in alkaline hydrothermal vents. Based on this mechanism, we show that the evolution of active ion pumping could have driven the deep divergence of bacteria and archaea.