Mulkidjanian, Koonin et al., “Origin of first cells at terrestrial, anoxic geothermal fields,” PNAS, February 13, 2012, doi: 10.1073/pnas.1117774109.
Abstract: All cells contain much more potassium, phosphate, and transition metals than modern (or reconstructed primeval) oceans, lakes, or rivers. Cells maintain ion gradients by using sophisticated, energy-dependent membrane enzymes (membrane pumps) that are embedded in elaborate ion-tight membranes. The first cells could possess neither ion-tight membranes nor membrane pumps, so the concentrations of small inorganic molecules and ions within protocells [Is there any evidence protocells ever existed? Why do none exist now?] and in their environment would equilibrate. Hence, the ion composition of modern cells might reflect the inorganic ion composition of the habitats of protocells. We attempted to reconstruct the “hatcheries” of the first cells by combining geochemical analysis with phylogenomic scrutiny of the inorganic ion requirements of universal components of modern cells. These ubiquitous, and by inference primordial, proteins and functional systems show affinity to and functional requirement for K+, Zn2+, Mn2+, and phosphate. Thus, protocells must have evolved in habitats with a high K+/Na+ ratio and relatively high concentrations of Zn, Mn, and phosphorous compounds. Geochemical reconstruction shows that the ionic composition conducive to the origin of cells could not have existed in marine settings but is compatible with emissions of vapor-dominated zones of inland geothermal systems. Under the anoxic, CO2-dominated primordial atmosphere, the chemistry of basins at geothermal fields would resemble the internal milieu of modern cells. The precellular stages of evolution might have transpired in shallow ponds of condensed and cooled geothermal vapor that were lined with porous silicate minerals mixed with metal sulfides and enriched in K+, Zn2+, and phosphorous compounds.
It’s a pretty thin case. Speculation, not evidence. If origin of life theorists are right, life did not originate.
If only someone could find a protocell, we’d have something to discuss. The fact that after all this time, no one has ever found a legendary “protocell” is suspicious, surely.
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