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Could early life survive without phosphorus?

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From Jeffrey Marlow at Discover blog:

“CHNOPS” is one of science’s most revered acronyms, an amalgamation of letters that rolls of the tongues of high school biology students and practicing researchers alike. It accounts for the six elements that comprise most biological molecules: carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, phosphorous, and sulfur.

Biologists have traditionally assumed that all six elements were prerequisites, as each one is found in several of life’s most essential molecules. But what if earlier life forms weren’t quite so demanding? Could a sustainable metabolism actually exist without one of these seemingly essential elements? To explore this revolutionary possibility, Joshua Goldford, a graduate student in Boston University’s Bioinformatics Program, led a theoretical study taking aim at phosphorous and its most biologically utilitarian derivative, phosphate.

Goldford proposes that thioesters – and a molecule called pantetheine in particular – could play a similar role: when an acetyl group is stripped off, 33 kJ / mol of energy is generated. It’s not as much as an ATP molecule, but it’s enough to ease the energetic burden of the hypothetical cell and enable a more luxurient way of life. More.

Marlow sounds suitably non-committal about the claim. It’s been aired elsewhere too, for example: Arsenic has been touted as a substitute for phosphorus in DNA with disappointing results. Many other fixes are offered.

It’s reasonable to think that shortages of phosphorus limited the spread of early life, and its absence may have accounted for long periods when nothing much appeared to be happening. Beyond that…

See also: What we know and don’t know about the origin of life

Early Earth oxygen debate: Will the shooting stars please rise

Researchers: Small amount of oxygen 3.8 billion years ago

Did a low oxygen level delay complex life on Earth? (October 31, 2014)

Early Earth was indeed “extremely oxygen-poor compared to today” (January 16, 2015)

Small pre-Cambrian oxygen jump kickstarted complex life
(July 24, 2015)

Oxygen Does Not Equal Life – Implications for Abiogenesis? (September 15, 2015)

Researchers: Cyanobacteria responsible for Earth’s early oxygen
(November 28, 2015)

Animals didn’t “arise” from oxygenation, they created it, researchers say

Theory on how animals evolved challenged: Some need almost no oxygen

and

New study: Oxygenic photosynthesis goes back three billion years

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