A survey of Antarctic waters along the East Scotia Ridge in the Southern Ocean reveals a new vent biogeographic province among previously uncharacterized deep-sea hydrothermal vent communities.
Since the first discovery of deep-sea hydrothermal vents along the Galápagos Rift in 1977, numerous vent sites and endemic faunal assemblages have been found along mid-ocean ridges and back-arc basins at low to mid latitudes. These discoveries have suggested the existence of separate biogeographic provinces in the Atlantic and the North West Pacific, the existence of a province including the South West Pacific and Indian Ocean, and a separation of the North East Pacific, North East Pacific Rise, and South East Pacific Rise. The Southern Ocean is known to be a region of high deep-sea species diversity and centre of origin for the global deep-sea fauna. It has also been proposed as a gateway connecting hydrothermal vents in different oceans but is little explored because of extreme conditions. Since 2009 we have explored two segments of the East Scotia Ridge (ESR) in the Southern Ocean using a remotely operated vehicle. In each segment we located deep-sea hydrothermal vents hosting high-temperature black smokers up to 382.8°C and diffuse venting. The chemosynthetic ecosystems hosted by these vents are dominated by a new yeti crab (Kiwa n. sp.), stalked barnacles, limpets, peltospiroid gastropods, anemones, and a predatory sea star. Taxa abundant in vent ecosystems in other oceans, including polychaete worms (Siboglinidae), bathymodiolid mussels, and alvinocaridid shrimps, are absent from the ESR vents. These groups, except the Siboglinidae, possess planktotrophic larvae, rare in Antarctic marine invertebrates, suggesting that the environmental conditions of the Southern Ocean may act as a dispersal filter for vent taxa. Evidence from the distinctive fauna, the unique community structure, and multivariate analyses suggest that the Antarctic vent ecosystems represent a new vent biogeographic province. However, multivariate analyses of species present at the ESR and at other deep-sea hydrothermal vents globally indicate that vent biogeography is more complex than previously recognised.
Deep-sea hydrothermal vents are mainly associated with seafloor spreading at mid-ocean ridges and in basins near volcanic island arcs. They host animals found nowhere else that derive their energy not from the sun but from bacterial oxidation of chemicals in the vent fluids, particularly hydrogen sulphide. Hydrothermal vents and their communities of organisms have become important models for understanding the origins and limits of life as well as evolution of island-like communities in the deep ocean. We describe the fauna associated with high-temperature hydrothermal vents on the East Scotia Ridge, Southern Ocean, to our knowledge the first to be discovered in Antarctic waters. These communities are dominated by a new species of yeti crab, stalked barnacles, limpets and snails, sea anemones, and a predatory seven-armed starfish. Animals commonly found in hydrothermal vents of the Pacific, Atlantic, and Indian Oceans, including giant Riftia tubeworms, annelid worms, vent mussels, vent crabs, and vent shrimps, were not present at the Southern Ocean vents. These discoveries suggest that the environmental conditions of the Southern Ocean may act as a barrier to some vent animals and that the East Scotia Ridge communities form a new biogeographic province with a unique species composition and structure.
All life is organized as cells. Physical compartmentation from the environment and self-organization of self-contained redox reactions are the most conserved attributes of living things, hence inorganic matter with such attributes would be life's most likely forebear. We propose that life evolved in structured iron monosulphide precipitates in a seepage site hydrothermal mound at a redox, pH and temperature gradient between sulphide-rich hydrothermal fluid and iron(II)-containing waters of the Hadean ocean floor. The naturally arising, three-dimensional compartmentation observed within fossilized seepage-site metal sulphide precipitates indicates that these inorganic compartments were the precursors of cell walls and membranes found in free-living prokaryotes. The known capability of FeS and NiS to catalyse the synthesis of the acetyl-methylsulphide from carbon monoxide and methylsulphide, constituents of hydrothermal fluid, indicates that pre-biotic syntheses occurred at the inner surfaces of these metal-sulphide-walled compartments, which furthermore restrained reacted products from diffusion into the ocean, providing sufficient concentrations of reactants to forge the transition from geochemistry to biochemistry. The chemistry of what is known as the RNA-world could have taken place within these naturally forming, catalyticwalled compartments to give rise to replicating systems. Sufficient concentrations of precursors to support replication would have been synthesized in situ geochemically and biogeochemically, with FeS (and NiS) centres playing the central catalytic role. The universal ancestor we infer was not a free-living cell, but rather was confined to the naturally chemiosmotic, FeS compartments within which the synthesis of its constituents occurred. The first free-living cells are suggested to have been eubacterial and archaebacterial chemoautotrophs that emerged more than 3.8 Gyr ago from their inorganic confines. We propose that the emergence of these prokaryotic lineages from inorganic confines occurred independently, facilitated by the independent origins of membrane-lipid biosynthesis: isoprenoid ether membranes in the archaebacterial and fatty acid ester membranes in the eubacterial lineage. The eukaryotes, all of which are ancestrally heterotrophs and possess eubacterial lipids, are suggested to have arisen ca. 2 Gyr ago through symbiosis involving an autotrophic archaebacterial host and a heterotrophic eubacterial symbiont, the common ancestor of mitochondria and hydrogenosomes. The attributes shared by all prokaryotes are viewed as inheritances from their confined universal ancestor. The attributes that distinguish eubacteria and archaebacteria, yet are uniform within the groups, are viewed as relics of their phase of differentiation after divergence from the non-free-living universal ancestor and before the origin of the free-living chemoautotrophic lifestyle. The attributes shared by eukaryotes with eubacteria and archaebacteria, respectively, are viewed as inheritances via symbiosis. The attributes unique to eukaryotes are viewed as inventions specific to their lineage. The origin of the eukaryotic endomembrane system and nuclear membrane are suggested to be the fortuitous result of the expression of genes for eubacterial membrane lipid synthesis by an archaebacterial genetic apparatus in a compartment that was not fully prepared to accommodate such compounds, resulting in vesicles of eubacterial lipids that accumulated in the cytosol around their site of synthesis. Under these premises, the most ancient divide in the living world is that between eubacteria and archaebacteria, yet the steepest evolutionary grade is that between prokaryotes and eukaryotes.
Chemiosmotic coupling is universal: practically all cells harness electrochemical proton gradients across membranes to drive ATP synthesis, powering biochemistry. Autotrophic cells, including phototrophs and chemolithotrophs, also use proton gradients to power carbon fixation directly. The universality of chemiosmotic coupling suggests that it arose very early in evolution, but its origins are obscure. Alkaline hydrothermal systems sustain natural proton gradients across the thin inorganic barriers of interconnected micropores within deep-sea vents. In Hadean oceans, these inorganic barriers should have contained catalytic Fe(Ni)S minerals similar in structure to cofactors in modern metabolic enzymes, suggesting a possible abiotic origin of chemiosmotic coupling. The continuous supply of H2 and CO2 from vent fluids and early oceans, respectively, offers further parallels with the biochemistry of ancient autotrophic cells, notably the acetyl CoA pathway in archaea and bacteria. However, the precise mechanisms by which natural proton gradients, H2, CO2 and metal sulphides could have driven organic synthesis are uncertain, and theoretical ideas lack empirical support. We have built a simple electrochemical reactor to simulate conditions in alkaline hydrothermal vents, allowing investigation of the possibility that abiotic vent chemistry could prefigure the origins of biochemistry. We discuss the construction and testing of the reactor, describing the precipitation of thin-walled, inorganic structures containing nickel-doped mackinawite, a catalytic Fe(Ni)S mineral, under prebiotic ocean conditions. These simulated vent structures appear to generate low yields of simple organics. Synthetic microporous matrices can concentrate organics by thermophoresis over several orders of magnitude under continuous open-flow vent conditions.
Serpentinization; Alkaline vent; Hydrothermal; CO2 reduction; Thermophoresis
Water ice has been discovered on the moon by radar backscatter at the North Pole and by spectrometry at the South Pole in the Cabeus crater with an extrapolated volume for both poles of conservatively 109 metric tons. Various exogenic and endogenic sources of this water have been proposed. This paper focuses on endogenic water sources by fumaroles and hot springs in shadowed polar craters. A survey of theoretical and morphological details supports a volcanic model. Release of water and other constituents by defluidization over geological time was intensified in the Hadean Eon (c.a. 4600 to 4000 My). Intensification factors include higher heat flow by now-extinct radionuclides, tidal flexing and higher core temperatures. Lesser gravity would promote deeper bubble nucleation in lunar magmas, slower rise rates of gases and enhanced subsidence of lunar caldera floors. Hadean volcanism would likely have been more intense and regional in nature as opposed to suture-controlled location of calderas in Phanerozoic Benioff-style subduction environments. Seventy-seven morphological, remote sensing and return sample features were categorized into five categories ranging from a volcano-tectonic origin only to impact origin only. Scores for the most logical scenario were 69 to eight in favor of lunar volcanism. Ingredients in the Cabeus plume analysis showed many volcanic fluids and their derivatives plus a large amount of mercury. Mercury-rich fumaroles are well documented on Earth and are virtually absent in cometary gases and solids. There are no mercury anomalies in terrestrial impact craters. Volcanic fluids and their derivatives in lunar shadow can theoretically evolve into protolife. Energy for this evolution can be provided by vent flow charging intensified in the lunar Hadean and by charge separation on freezing fumarolic fluids in shadow. Fischer-Tropsch reactions on hydrothermal clays can yield lipids, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons and amino acids. Soluble polyphosphates are available in volcanic fluids as well as vital catalysts such as tungsten. We conclude that the high volume of polar water resources supports the likelihood of lunar volcanism and that lunar volcanism supports the likelihood of protolife.
fumaroles; lunar water; protolife; lunar volcanism
Synthesis of proteins is based on the genetic code - a nearly universal assignment of codons to amino acids (aas). A major challenge to the understanding of the origins of this assignment is the archetypal "key-lock vs. frozen accident" dilemma. Here we re-examine this dilemma in light of 1) the fundamental veto on "foresight evolution", 2) modular structures of tRNAs and aminoacyl-tRNA synthetases, and 3) the updated library of aa-binding sites in RNA aptamers successfully selected in vitro for eight amino acids.
The aa-binding sites of arginine, isoleucine and tyrosine contain both their cognate triplets, anticodons and codons. We have noticed that these cases might be associated with palindrome-dinucleotides. For example, one-base shift to the left brings arginine codons CGN, with CG at 1-2 positions, to the respective anticodons NCG, with CG at 2-3 positions. Formally, the concomitant presence of codons and anticodons is also expected in the reverse situation, with codons containing palindrome-dinucleotides at their 2-3 positions, and anticodons exhibiting them at 1-2 positions. A closer analysis reveals that, surprisingly, RNA binding sites for Arg, Ile and Tyr "prefer" (exactly as in the actual genetic code) the anticodon(2-3)/codon(1-2) tetramers to their anticodon(1-2)/codon(2-3) counterparts, despite the seemingly perfect symmetry of the latter. However, since in vitro selection of aa-specific RNA aptamers apparently had nothing to do with translation, this striking preference provides a new strong support to the notion of the genetic code emerging before translation, in response to catalytic (and possibly other) needs of ancient RNA life. Consistently with the pre-translation origin of the code, we propose here a new model of tRNA origin by the gradual, Fibonacci process-like, elongation of a tRNA molecule from a primordial coding triplet and 5'DCCA3' quadruplet (D is a base-determinator) to the eventual 76 base-long cloverleaf-shaped molecule.
Taken together, our findings necessarily imply that primordial tRNAs, tRNA aminoacylating ribozymes, and (later) the translation machinery in general have been co-evolving to ''fit'' the (likely already defined) genetic code, rather than the opposite way around. Coding triplets in this primal pre-translational code were likely similar to the anticodons, with second and third nucleotides being more important than the less specific first one. Later, when the code was expanding in co-evolution with the translation apparatus, the importance of 2-3 nucleotides of coding triplets "transferred" to the 1-2 nucleotides of their complements, thus distinguishing anticodons from codons. This evolutionary primacy of anticodons in genetic coding makes the hypothesis of primal stereo-chemical affinity between amino acids and cognate triplets, the hypothesis of coding coenzyme handles for amino acids, the hypothesis of tRNA-like genomic 3' tags suggesting that tRNAs originated in replication, and the hypothesis of ancient ribozymes-mediated operational code of tRNA aminoacylation not mutually contradicting but rather co-existing in harmony.
This article was reviewed by Eugene V. Koonin, Wentao Ma (nominated by Juergen Brosius) and Anthony Poole.
Submarine hydrothermal vents above serpentinite produce chemical potential gradients of aqueous and ionic hydrogen, thus providing a very attractive venue for the origin of life. This environment was most favourable before Earth's massive CO2 atmosphere was subducted into the mantle, which occurred tens to approximately 100 Myr after the moon-forming impact; thermophile to clement conditions persisted for several million years while atmospheric pCO2 dropped from approximately 25 bar to below 1 bar. The ocean was weakly acid (pH ∼ 6), and a large pH gradient existed for nascent life with pH 9–11 fluids venting from serpentinite on the seafloor. Total CO2 in water was significant so the vent environment was not carbon limited. Biologically important phosphate and Fe(II) were somewhat soluble during this period, which occurred well before the earliest record of preserved surface rocks approximately 3.8 billion years ago (Ga) when photosynthetic life teemed on the Earth and the oceanic pH was the modern value of approximately 8. Serpentinite existed by 3.9 Ga, but older rocks that might retain evidence of its presence have not been found. Earth's sequesters extensive evidence of Archaean and younger subducted biological material, but has yet to be exploited for the Hadean record.
RNA world; origin of life; Hadean; Archaean; anoxygenic photosynthesis; serpentine
The translation machinery underlies a multitude of biological processes within the cell. The design and implementation of the modern translation apparatus on even the simplest course of action is extremely complex, and involves different RNA and protein factors. According to the “RNA world” idea, the critical link in the translation machinery may be assigned to an adaptor tRNA molecule. Its exceptional functional and structural characteristics are of primary importance in understanding the evolutionary relationships among all these macromolecular components.
Presentation of the hypothesis
The 2′-3′ hydroxyls of the tRNA A76 constitute chemical groups of critical functional importance, as they are implicated in almost all phases of protein biosynthesis. They contribute to: a) each step of the tRNA aminoacylation reaction catalyzed by aminoacyl-tRNA synthetases (aaRSs); b) the isomerase activity of EF-Tu, involving a mixture of the 2′(3′)- aminoacyl tRNA isomers as substrates, thereby producing the required combination of amino acid and tRNA; and c) peptide bond formation at the peptidyl transferase center (PTC) of the ribosome. We hypothesize that specific functions assigned to the 2′-3′ hydroxyls during peptide bond formation co-evolved, together with two modes of attack on the aminoacyl-adenylate carbonyl typical for two classes of aaRSs, and alongside the isomerase activity of EF-Tu. Protein components of the translational apparatus are universally recognized as being of ancient origin, possibly replacing RNA-based enzymes that may have existed before the last universal common ancestor (LUCA). We believe that a remnant of these processes is still imprinted on the organization of modern-day translation.
Testing and implications of the hypothesis
Earlier publications indicate that it is possible to select ribozymes capable of attaching the aa-AMP moiety to RNA molecules. The scenario described herein would gain general acceptance, if a ribozyme able to activate the amino acid and transfer it onto the terminal ribose of the tRNA, would be found in any life form, or generated in vitro. Interestingly, recent studies have demonstrated the plausibility of using metals, likely abandoned under primordial conditions, as biomimetic catalysts of the aminoacylation reaction.
This article was reviewed by Henri Grosjean, Manuel Santos and Eugene Koonin. For complete reviews, go to the Reviewers’ reports section.
Aminoacyl-tRNA synthetases; Elongation factor EF-Tu; Ribosome; 2′-3′ hydroxyls of the ribose
Summary: We have developed a general scenario of prebiotic physicochemical evolution during the Earth's Hadean eon and reviewed the relevant literature. We suggest that prebiotic chemical evolution started in microspaces with membranous walls, where external temperature and osmotic gradients were coupled to free-energy gradients of potential chemical reactions. The key feature of this scenario is the onset of an emergent evolutionary transition within the microspaces that is described by the model of complex vectorial chemistry. This transition occurs at average macromolecular crowding of 20 to 30% of the cell volume, when the ranges of action of stabilizing colloidal forces (screened electrostatic forces, hydration, and excluded volume forces) become commensurate. Under these conditions, the macromolecules divide the interior of microspaces into dynamically crowded macromolecular regions and topologically complementary electrolyte pools. Small ions and ionic metabolites are transported vectorially between the electrolyte pools and through the (semiconducting) electrolyte pathways of the crowded macromolecular regions from their high electrochemical potential (where they are biochemically produced) to their lower electrochemical potential (where they are consumed). We suggest a sequence of tentative transitions between major evolutionary periods during the Hadean eon as follows: (i) the early water world, (ii) the appearance of land masses, (iii) the pre-RNA world, (iv) the onset of complex vectorial chemistry, and (v) the RNA world and evolution toward Darwinian thresholds. We stress the importance of high ionic strength of the Hadean ocean (short Debye's lengths) and screened electrostatic interactions that enabled the onset of the vectorial structure of the cytoplasm and the possibility of life's emergence.
Sodium/proton antiporters maintain intracellular pH and sodium levels. Detailed
structures of antiporters with bound substrate ions are essential for understanding
how they work. We have resolved the substrate ion in the dimeric, electroneutral
sodium/proton antiporter PaNhaP from Pyrococcus abyssi at 3.2
Å, and have determined its structure in two different conformations at pH 8 and
pH 4. The ion is coordinated by three acidic sidechains, a water molecule, a serine
and a main-chain carbonyl in the unwound stretch of trans-membrane helix 5 at the
deepest point of a negatively charged cytoplasmic funnel. A second narrow polar
channel may facilitate proton uptake from the cytoplasm. Transport activity of PaNhaP
is cooperative at pH 6 but not at pH 5. Cooperativity is due to pH-dependent
allosteric coupling of protomers through two histidines at the dimer interface.
Combined with comprehensive transport studies, the structures of PaNhaP offer unique
new insights into the transport mechanism of sodium/proton antiporters.
Although the membrane that surrounds a cell is effective at separating the inside of
a cell from the outside environment, certain molecules must enter or leave the cell
for it to work correctly. One way this transport can occur is via proteins embedded
in the cell membrane, called transporters.
Transporters that are found in all organisms include the sodium/proton antiporters,
which exchange protons from inside the cell with sodium ions from outside. However,
exactly how the antiporter works was unknown.
Previous work suggested that the structure and activity of the sodium/proton
antiporter changes as the acidity of its environment changes, but the precise details
of how this occurs were unclear. Wöhlert et al. have now crystallised a
sodium/proton antiporter from a single-celled organism called Pyrococcus
abyssi, a species of archaea that has been found living in hydrothermal
vents deep in the Pacific Ocean. The structures the protein takes on in different
functional states were then deduced from these crystals using a technique called
X-ray crystallography. Using heavy thallium ions instead of sodium ions, which are
less visible to X-rays, Wöhlert et al. found the site in the antiporter where
the transported ion binds as it moves through the membrane.
The antiporter has a funnel-shaped cavity that faces inwards (into the cell) in both
acidic and alkaline conditions, although a second narrow channel that is open in
alkaline conditions is blocked in acidic conditions by small protein rearrangements.
Wöhlert et al. suggest that the differences between both structures explain how
the antiporter tunes its ability to bind to the ions it transports.
Wöhlert et al. further measured the activity of the antiporter and observed that
the transport of ions was most rapid under slightly acidic conditions. In more acidic
conditions, the sodium ion cannot bind to the antiporter, and in an alkaline
environment, the sodium ions bind too strongly to the antiporter; in both cases, the
ions cannot be transported.
Comparing the findings presented here with separate work that uncovers the structure
of the sodium/proton antiporter in a different species of archaea revealed very
similar structures. Related transporters are also found in mammals, and defects in
these transporters can lead to problems with the heart and kidneys. A better
understanding of the sodium/proton antiporter structure could therefore help to
develop new treatments for these conditions.
Pyrococcus abyssi; membrane transport; sodium/proton antiport; x-ray crystallography; transport mechanism; other
The origin of the translation system is, arguably, the central and the hardest problem in the study of the origin of life, and one of the hardest in all evolutionary biology. The problem has a clear catch-22 aspect: high translation fidelity hardly can be achieved without a complex, highly evolved set of RNAs and proteins but an elaborate protein machinery could not evolve without an accurate translation system. The origin of the genetic code and whether it evolved on the basis of a stereochemical correspondence between amino acids and their cognate codons (or anticodons), through selectional optimization of the code vocabulary, as a "frozen accident" or via a combination of all these routes is another wide open problem despite extensive theoretical and experimental studies. Here we combine the results of comparative genomics of translation system components, data on interaction of amino acids with their cognate codons and anticodons, and data on catalytic activities of ribozymes to develop conceptual models for the origins of the translation system and the genetic code.
Our main guide in constructing the models is the Darwinian Continuity Principle whereby a scenario for the evolution of a complex system must consist of plausible elementary steps, each conferring a distinct advantage on the evolving ensemble of genetic elements. Evolution of the translation system is envisaged to occur in a compartmentalized ensemble of replicating, co-selected RNA segments, i.e., in a RNA World containing ribozymes with versatile activities. Since evolution has no foresight, the translation system could not evolve in the RNA World as the result of selection for protein synthesis and must have been a by-product of evolution drive by selection for another function, i.e., the translation system evolved via the exaptation route. It is proposed that the evolutionary process that eventually led to the emergence of translation started with the selection for ribozymes binding abiogenic amino acids that stimulated ribozyme-catalyzed reactions. The proposed scenario for the evolution of translation consists of the following steps: binding of amino acids to a ribozyme resulting in an enhancement of its catalytic activity; evolution of the amino-acid-stimulated ribozyme into a peptide ligase (predecessor of the large ribosomal subunit) yielding, initially, a unique peptide activating the original ribozyme and, possibly, other ribozymes in the ensemble; evolution of self-charging proto-tRNAs that were selected, initially, for accumulation of amino acids, and subsequently, for delivery of amino acids to the peptide ligase; joining of the peptide ligase with a distinct RNA molecule (predecessor of the small ribosomal subunit) carrying a built-in template for more efficient, complementary binding of charged proto-tRNAs; evolution of the ability of the peptide ligase to assemble peptides using exogenous RNAs as template for complementary binding of charged proteo-tRNAs, yielding peptides with the potential to activate different ribozymes; evolution of the translocation function of the protoribosome leading to the production of increasingly longer peptides (the first proteins), i.e., the origin of translation. The specifics of the recognition of amino acids by proto-tRNAs and the origin of the genetic code depend on whether or not there is a physical affinity between amino acids and their cognate codons or anticodons, a problem that remains unresolved.
We describe a stepwise model for the origin of the translation system in the ancient RNA world such that each step confers a distinct advantage onto an ensemble of co-evolving genetic elements. Under this scenario, the primary cause for the emergence of translation was the ability of amino acids and peptides to stimulate reactions catalyzed by ribozymes. Thus, the translation system might have evolved as the result of selection for ribozymes capable of, initially, efficient amino acid binding, and subsequently, synthesis of increasingly versatile peptides. Several aspects of this scenario are amenable to experimental testing.
This article was reviewed by Rob Knight, Doron Lancet, Alexander Mankin (nominated by Arcady Mushegian), and Arcady Mushegian.
Life is the harnessing of chemical energy in such a way that the energy-harnessing device makes a copy of itself. This paper outlines an energetically feasible path from a particular inorganic setting for the origin of life to the first free-living cells. The sources of energy available to early organic synthesis, early evolving systems and early cells stand in the foreground, as do the possible mechanisms of their conversion into harnessable chemical energy for synthetic reactions. With regard to the possible temporal sequence of events, we focus on: (i) alkaline hydrothermal vents as the far-from-equilibrium setting, (ii) the Wood–Ljungdahl (acetyl-CoA) pathway as the route that could have underpinned carbon assimilation for these processes, (iii) biochemical divergence, within the naturally formed inorganic compartments at a hydrothermal mound, of geochemically confined replicating entities with a complexity below that of free-living prokaryotes, and (iv) acetogenesis and methanogenesis as the ancestral forms of carbon and energy metabolism in the first free-living ancestors of the eubacteria and archaebacteria, respectively. In terms of the main evolutionary transitions in early bioenergetic evolution, we focus on: (i) thioester-dependent substrate-level phosphorylations, (ii) harnessing of naturally existing proton gradients at the vent–ocean interface via the ATP synthase, (iii) harnessing of Na+ gradients generated by H+/Na+ antiporters, (iv) flavin-based bifurcation-dependent gradient generation, and finally (v) quinone-based (and Q-cycle-dependent) proton gradient generation. Of those five transitions, the first four are posited to have taken place at the vent. Ultimately, all of these bioenergetic processes depend, even today, upon CO2 reduction with low-potential ferredoxin (Fd), generated either chemosynthetically or photosynthetically, suggesting a reaction of the type ‘reduced iron → reduced carbon’ at the beginning of bioenergetic evolution.
transition metals; acetogens; methanogens; sulfate reducers; origin of life; hydrothermal vents
The “RNA world” hypothesis is seen as one of the main contenders for a viable theory on the origin of life. Relatively small RNAs have catalytic power, RNA is everywhere in present-day life, the ribosome is seen as a ribozyme, and rRNA and tRNA are crucial for modern protein synthesis. However, this view is incomplete at best. The modern protein-RNA ribosome most probably is not a distorted form of a “pure RNA ribosome” evolution started out with. Though the oldest center of the ribosome seems “RNA only”, we cannot conclude from this that it ever functioned in an environment without amino acids and/or peptides. Very small RNAs (versatile and stable due to basepairing) and amino acids, as well as dipeptides, coevolved. Remember, it is the amino group of aminoacylated tRNA that attacks peptidyl-tRNA, destroying the bond between peptide and tRNA. This activity of the amino acid part of aminoacyl-tRNA illustrates the centrality of amino acids in life. With the rise of the “RNA world” view of early life, the pendulum seems to have swung too much towards the ribozymatic part of early biochemistry. The necessary presence and activity of amino acids and peptides is in need of highlighting. In this article, we try to bring the role of the peptide component of early life back into focus. We argue that an RNA world completely independent of amino acids never existed.
coevolutionary theory; RNA world; prebiotic chemistry; evolution
All living organisms encode the 20 natural amino acid units of polypeptides using a universal scheme of triplet nucleotide “codons”. Disparate features of this codon scheme are potentially informative of early molecular evolution: (i) the absence of any codons for d-amino acids; (ii) the odd combination of alternate codon patterns for some amino acids; (iii) the confinement of synonymous positions to a codon’s third nucleotide; (iv) the use of 20 specific amino acids rather than a number closer to the full coding potential of 64; and (v) the evolutionary relationship of patterns in stop codons to amino acid codons. Here I propose a model for an ancestral proto-anti-codon RNA (pacRNA) auto-aminoacylation system and show that pacRNAs would naturally manifest features of the codon table. I show that pacRNAs could implement all the steps for auto-aminoacylation: amino acid coordination, intermediate activation of the amino acid by the 5′-end of the pacRNA, and 3′-aminoacylation of the pacRNA. The anti-codon cradles of pacRNAs would have been able to recognize and coordinate only a small number of l-amino acids via hydrogen bonding. A need for proper spatial coordination would have limited the number of chargeable amino acids for all anti-codon sequences, in addition to making some anti-codon sequences unsuitable. Thus, the pacRNA model implies that the idiosyncrasies of the anti-codon table and l-amino acid homochirality co-evolved during a single evolutionary period. These results further imply that early life consisted of an aminoacylated RNA world with a richer enzymatic potential than ribonucleotides alone.
RNA world; Proto-anti-codons; Homochirality; Molecular evolution; Ribozymes
It is now believed that in the origin of life, proteins should have been "invented" in an RNA world. However, due to the complexity of a possible RNA-based proto-translation system, this evolving process seems quite complicated and the associated scenario remains very blurry. Considering that RNA can bind amino acids with specificity, it has been reasonably supposed that initial peptides might have been synthesized on "RNA templates" containing multiple amino acid binding sites. This "Direct RNA Template (DRT)" mechanism is attractive because it should be the simplest mechanism for RNA to synthesize peptides, thus very likely to have been adopted initially in the RNA world. Then, how this mechanism could develop into a proto-translation system mechanism is an interesting problem.
Presentation of the hypothesis
Here an explanation to this problem is shown considering the principle of "replication parsimony" --- genetic information tends to be utilized in a parsimonious way under selection pressure, due to its replication cost (e.g., in the RNA world, nucleotides and ribozymes for RNA replication). Because a DRT would be quite long even for a short peptide, its replication cost would be great. Thus the diversity and the length of functional peptides synthesized by the DRT mechanism would be seriously limited. Adaptors (proto-tRNAs) would arise to allow a DRT's complementary strand (called "C-DRT" here) to direct the synthesis of the same peptide synthesized by the DRT itself. Because the C-DRT is a necessary part in the DRT's replication, fewer turns of the DRT's replication would be needed to synthesize definite copies of the functional peptide, thus saving the replication cost. Acting through adaptors, C-DRTs could transform into much shorter templates (called "proto-mRNAs" here) and substitute the role of DRTs, thus significantly saving the replication cost. A proto-rRNA corresponding to the small subunit rRNA would then emerge to aid the binding of proto-tRNAs and proto-mRNAs, allowing the reduction of base pairs between them (ultimately resulting in the triplet anticodon/codon pair), thus further saving the replication cost. In this context, the replication cost saved would allow the appearance of more and longer functional peptides and, finally, proteins. The hypothesis could be called "DRT-RP" ("RP" for "replication parsimony").
Testing the hypothesis
The scenario described here is open for experimental work at some key scenes, including the compact DRT mechanism, the development of adaptors from aa-aptamers, the synthesis of peptides by proto-tRNAs and proto-mRNAs without the participation of proto-rRNAs, etc. Interestingly, a recent computer simulation study has demonstrated the plausibility of one of the evolving processes driven by replication parsimony in the scenario.
Implication of the hypothesis
An RNA-based proto-translation system could arise gradually from the DRT mechanism according to the principle of "replication parsimony" --- to save the replication cost of RNA templates for functional peptides. A surprising side deduction along the logic of the hypothesis is that complex, biosynthetic amino acids might have entered the genetic code earlier than simple, prebiotic amino acids, which is opposite to the common sense. Overall, the present discussion clarifies the blurry scenario concerning the origin of translation with a major clue, which shows vividly how life could "manage" to exploit potential chemical resources in nature, eventually in an efficient way over evolution.
This article was reviewed by Eugene V. Koonin, Juergen Brosius, and Arcady Mushegian.
Understanding the origin of protein synthesis has been notoriously difficult. We have taken as a starting premise Wolf and Koonin's view that "evolution of the translation system is envisaged to occur in a compartmentalized ensemble of replicating, co-selected RNA segments, i.e., in an RNA world containing ribozymes with versatile activities".
Presentation of the hypothesis
We propose that coded protein synthesis arose from a noncoded process in an RNA world as a natural consequence of the accumulation of a range of early tRNAs and their serendipitous RNA binding partners. We propose that, initially, RNA molecules with 3' CCA termini that could be aminoacylated by ribozymes, together with an ancestral peptidyl transferase ribozyme, produced small peptides with random or repetitive sequences. Our concept is that the first tRNA arose in this context from the ligation of two RNA hairpins and could be similarly aminoacylated at its 3' end to become a substrate for peptidyl transfer catalyzed by the ancestral ribozyme. Within this RNA world we hypothesize that proto-mRNAs appeared first simply as serendipitous binding partners, forming complementary base pair interactions with the anticodon loops of tRNA pairs. Initially this may have enhanced stability of the paired tRNA molecules so they were held together in close proximity, better positioning the 3' CCA termini for peptidyl transfer and enhancing the rate of peptide synthesis. If there were a selective advantage for the ensemble through the peptide products synthesized, it would provide a natural pathway for the evolution of a coding system with the expansion of a cohort of different tRNAs and their binding partners. The whole process could have occurred quite unremarkably for such a profound acquisition.
Testing the hypothesis
It should be possible to test the different parts of our model using the isolated contemporary 50S ribosomal subunit initially, and then with RNAs transcribed in vitro together with a minimal set of ribosomal proteins that are required today to support protein synthesis.
Implications of the hypothesis
This model proposes that genetic coding arose de novo from complementary base pair interactions between tRNAs and single-stranded RNAs present in the immediate environment.
This article was reviewed by Eugene Koonin, Rob Knight and Berthold Kastner (nominated by Laura Landweber).
Life is evolutionarily the most complex of the emergent symmetry-breaking, macroscopically organized dynamic structures in the Universe. Members of this cascading series of disequilibria-converting systems, or engines in Cottrell's terminology, become ever more complicated—more chemical and less physical—as each engine extracts, exploits and generates ever lower grades of energy and resources in the service of entropy generation. Each one of these engines emerges spontaneously from order created by a particular mother engine or engines, as the disequilibrated potential daughter is driven beyond a critical point. Exothermic serpentinization of ocean crust is life's mother engine. It drives alkaline hydrothermal convection and thereby the spontaneous production of precipitated submarine hydrothermal mounds. Here, the two chemical disequilibria directly causative in the emergence of life spontaneously arose across the mineral precipitate membranes separating the acidulous, nitrate-bearing CO2-rich, Hadean sea from the alkaline and CH4/H2-rich serpentinization-generated effluents. Essential redox gradients—involving hydrothermal CH4 and H2 as electron donors, CO2 and nitrate, nitrite, and ferric iron from the ambient ocean as acceptors—were imposed which functioned as the original ‘carbon-fixing engine’. At the same time, a post-critical-point (milli)voltage pH potential (proton concentration gradient) drove the condensation of orthophosphate to produce a high energy currency: ‘the pyrophosphatase engine’.
origin of life; carbon fixation; alkaline hydrothermal; disequilibria; pyrophosphatase
The RNA world hypothesis requires a ribozyme that was an RNA-directed RNA polymerase (ribopolymerase). If such a replicase makes a reverse complementary copy of any sequence (including itself), in a simple RNA world, there is no mechanism to prevent self-hybridization. It is proposed that this can be avoided through the synthesis of a parallel complementary copy. The logical consequences of this are pursued and developed in a computer simulation, where the behaviour of the parallel copy is compared to the conventional reverse complementary copy. It is found that the parallel copy is more efficient at higher temperatures (up to 90°C). A model for the ribopolymerase, based on the core of the large subunit (LSU) of the ribosome, is described. The geometry of a potential active site for this ribopolymerase suggests that it contained a cavity (now occupied by the aminoacyl-tRNA) and that an amino acid binding in this might have ‘poisoned’ the ribopolymerase by cross-reacting with the nucleoside-triphosphate before polymerization could occur. Based on a similarity to the active site components of the class-I tRNA synthetase enzymes, it is proposed that the amino acid could become attached to the nascent RNA transcript producing a variety of aminoacylated tRNA-like products. Using base-pairing interactions, some of these molecules might cross-link two ribopolymerases, giving rise to a precursor of the modern ribosome. A hybrid dimer, half polymerase and half proto-ribosome, could account for mRNA translocation before the advent of protein elongation factors.
RNA world; replication; translation; ribosome; origin of life
The subseafloor microbial habitat associated with typical unsedimented mid-ocean-ridge hydrothermal vent ecosystems may be limited by the availability of fixed nitrogen, inferred by the low ammonium and nitrate concentrations measured in diffuse hydrothermal fluid. Dissolved N2 gas, the largest reservoir of nitrogen in the ocean, is abundant in deep-sea and hydrothermal vent fluid. In order to test the hypothesis that biological nitrogen fixation plays an important role in nitrogen cycling in the subseafloor associated with unsedimented hydrothermal vents, degenerate PCR primers were designed to amplify the nitrogenase iron protein gene nifH from hydrothermal vent fluid. A total of 120 nifH sequences were obtained from four samples: a nitrogen-poor diffuse vent named marker 33 on Axial Volcano, sampled twice over a period of 1 year as its temperature decreased; a nitrogen-rich diffuse vent near Puffer on Endeavour Segment; and deep seawater with no detectable hydrothermal plume signal. Subseafloor nifH genes from marker 33 and Puffer are related to anaerobic clostridia and sulfate reducers. Other nifH genes unique to the vent samples include proteobacteria and divergent Archaea. All of the nifH genes from the deep-seawater sample are most closely related to the thermophilic, anaerobic archaeon Methanococcus thermolithotrophicus (77 to 83% amino acid similarity). These results provide the first genetic evidence of potential nitrogen fixers in hydrothermal vent environments and indicate that at least two sources contribute to the diverse assemblage of nifH genes detected in hydrothermal vent fluid: nifH genes from an anaerobic, hot subseafloor and nifH genes from cold, oxygenated deep seawater.
Hydrothermal chimneys are a globally dispersed habitat on the seafloor associated with mid-ocean ridge (MOR) spreading centers. Active, hot, venting sulfide structures from MORs have been examined for microbial diversity and ecology since their discovery in the mid-1970s, and recent work has also begun to explore the microbiology of inactive sulfides—structures that persist for decades to millennia and form moderate to massive deposits at and below the seafloor. Here we used tag pyrosequencing of the V6 region of the 16S rRNA and full-length 16S rRNA sequencing on inactive hydrothermal sulfide chimney samples from 9°N on the East Pacific Rise to learn their bacterial composition, metabolic potential, and succession from venting to nonventing (inactive) regimes. Alpha-, beta-, delta-, and gammaproteobacteria and members of the phylum Bacteroidetes dominate all inactive sulfides. Greater than 26% of the V6 tags obtained are closely related to lineages involved in sulfur, nitrogen, iron, and methane cycling. Epsilonproteobacteria represent <4% of the V6 tags recovered from inactive sulfides and 15% of the full-length clones, despite their high abundance in active chimneys. Members of the phylum Aquificae, which are common in active vents, were absent from both the V6 tags and full-length 16S rRNA data sets. In both analyses, the proportions of alphaproteobacteria, betaproteobacteria, and members of the phylum Bacteroidetes were greater than those found on active hydrothermal sulfides. These shifts in bacterial population structure on inactive chimneys reveal ecological succession following cessation of venting and also imply a potential shift in microbial activity and metabolic guilds on hydrothermal sulfides, the dominant biome that results from seafloor venting.
Hydrothermal chimneys are globally dispersed seafloor habitats associated with mid-ocean ridge spreading centers. Active, hot, venting chimneys have been examined for microbial ecology since their discovery in the late 1970s, but the microbiology of inactive chimneys, which may persist for thousands of years, has only recently been explored. We studied bacterial diversity on inactive hydrothermal sulfide chimney samples from 9°N on the East Pacific Rise to learn their bacterial community composition, potential ecological roles, and succession from active venting to inactive chimneys. Many bacteria on inactive sulfide chimneys are closely related to lineages involved in sulfur, nitrogen, iron, and methane cycling, and two common groups found on active chimneys are nearly absent from inactive vents, where they were replaced by groups likely involved in the elemental cycling mentioned above. Our findings reveal that ecological succession occurs on hydrothermal sulfides after active venting ceases and also imply a potential shift in microbial metabolic guilds.
Indian Ocean hydrothermal vents are believed to represent a novel biogeographic province, and are host to many novel genera and families of animals, potentially indigenous to Indian Ocean hydrothermal systems. In particular, since its discovery in 2001, much attention has been paid to a so-called ‘scaly-foot’ gastropod because of its unique iron-sulfide-coated dermal sclerites and the chemosynthetic symbioses in its various tissues. Despite increasing interest in the faunal assemblages at Indian Ocean hydrothermal vents, only two hydrothermal vent fields have been investigated in the Indian Ocean. Here we report two newly discovered hydrothermal vent fields, the Dodo and Solitaire fields, which are located in the Central Indian Ridge (CIR) segments 16 and 15, respectively. Chemosynthetic faunal communities at the Dodo field are emaciated in size and composition. In contrast, at the Solitaire field, we observed faunal communities that potentially contained almost all genera found at CIR hydrothermal environments to date, and even identified previously unreported taxa. Moreover, a new morphotype of ‘scaly-foot’ gastropod has been found at the Solitaire field. The newly discovered ‘scaly-foot’ gastropod has similar morphological and anatomical features to the previously reported type that inhabits the Kairei field, and both types of ‘scaly-foot’ gastropods genetically belong to the same species according to analyses of their COI gene and nuclear SSU rRNA gene sequences. However, the new morphotype completely lacks an iron-sulfide coating on the sclerites, which had been believed to be a novel feature restricted to ‘scaly-foot’ gastropods. Our new findings at the two newly discovered hydrothermal vent sites provide important insights into the biodiversity and biogeography of vent-endemic ecosystems in the Indian Ocean.
Dispersal ability plays a key role in the maintenance of species in spatially and temporally discrete niches of deep-sea hydrothermal vent environments. On the basis of population genetic analyses in the eastern Pacific vent fields, dispersal of animals in the mid-oceanic ridge systems generally appears to be constrained by geographical barriers such as trenches, transform faults, and microplates. Four hydrothermal vent fields (the Kairei and Edmond fields near the Rodriguez Triple Junction, and the Dodo and Solitaire fields in the Central Indian Ridge) have been discovered in the mid-oceanic ridge system of the Indian Ocean. In the present study, we monitored the dispersal of four representative animals, Austinograea rodriguezensis, Rimicaris kairei, Alviniconcha and the scaly-foot gastropods, among these vent fields by using indirect methods, i.e., phylogenetic and population genetic analyses. For all four investigated species, we estimated potentially high connectivity, i.e., no genetic difference among the populations present in vent fields located several thousands of kilometers apart; however, the direction of migration appeared to differ among the species, probably because of different dispersal strategies. Comparison of the intermediate-spreading Central Indian Ridge with the fast-spreading East Pacific Rise and slow-spreading Mid-Atlantic Ridge revealed the presence of relatively high connectivity in the intermediate- and slow-spreading ridge systems. We propose that geological background, such as spreading rate which determines distance among vent fields, is related to the larval dispersal and population establishment of vent-endemic animal species, and may play an important role in controlling connectivity among populations within a biogeographical province.
Following the publication of the Origin of Species in 1859, many naturalists adopted the idea that living organisms were the historical outcome of gradual transformation of lifeless matter. These views soon merged with the developments of biochemistry and cell biology and led to proposals in which the origin of protoplasm was equated with the origin of life. The heterotrophic origin of life proposed by Oparin and Haldane in the 1920s was part of this tradition, which Oparin enriched by transforming the discussion of the emergence of the first cells into a workable multidisciplinary research program.
On the other hand, the scientific trend toward understanding biological phenomena at the molecular level led authors like Troland, Muller, and others to propose that single molecules or viruses represented primordial living systems. The contrast between these opposing views on the origin of life represents not only contrasting views of the nature of life itself, but also major ideological discussions that reached a surprising intensity in the years following Stanley Miller’s seminal result which showed the ease with which organic compounds of biochemical significance could be synthesized under putative primitive conditions. In fact, during the years following the Miller experiment, attempts to understand the origin of life were strongly influenced by research on DNA replication and protein biosynthesis, and, in socio-political terms, by the atmosphere created by Cold War tensions.
The catalytic versatility of RNA molecules clearly merits a critical reappraisal of Muller’s viewpoint. However, the discovery of ribozymes does not imply that autocatalytic nucleic acid molecules ready to be used as primordial genes were floating in the primitive oceans, or that the RNA world emerged completely assembled from simple precursors present in the prebiotic soup. The evidence supporting the presence of a wide range of organic molecules on the primitive Earth, including membrane-forming compounds, suggests that the evolution of membrane-bounded molecular systems preceded cellular life on our planet, and that life is the evolutionary outcome of a process, not of a single, fortuitous event.
Research on life's origins started with naturalists following in Darwin's footsteps. It has since given us the “prebiotic soup,” the “RNA world,” and the notion that life resulted from a process, not an event.
It is believed that in the RNA world the operational (ribozymes) and the informational (riboscripts) RNA molecules were created with only three (adenosine, uridine, and guanosine) and two (adenosine and uridine) nucleosides, respectively, so that the genetic code started uncomplicated. Ribozymes subsequently evolved to be able to cut and paste themselves and riboscripts were acceptive to rigorous editing (adenosine to inosine); the intensive diversification of RNA molecules shaped novel cellular machineries that are capable of polymerizing amino acids—a new type of cellular building materials for life. Initially, the genetic code, encoding seven amino acids, was created only to distinguish purine and pyrimidine; it was later expanded in a stepwise way to encode 12, 15, and 20 amino acids through the relief of guanine from its roles as operational signals and through the recruitment of cytosine. Therefore, the maturation of the genetic code also coincided with (1) the departure of aminoacyl-tRNA synthetases (AARSs) from the primordial translation machinery, (2) the replacement of informational RNA by DNA, and (3) the co-evolution of AARSs and their cognate tRNAs. This model predicts gradual replacements of RNA-made molecular mechanisms, cellular processes by proteins, and informational exploitation by DNA.
genetic code; codon; aminoacyl-tRNA synthase; GC content
The glmS ribozyme-riboswitch is the first known example of a naturally occurring catalytic RNA that employs a small molecule as a coenzyme. Binding of glucosamine-6-phosphate (GlcN6P) activates self-cleavage of the bacterial ribozyme, which is part of the mRNA encoding the metabolic enzyme GlcN6P-synthetase. Cleavage leads to negative feedback regulation. GlcN6P binds in the active site of the ribozyme, where its amine could function as a general acid and electrostatic catalyst. The ribozyme is pre-folded but inactive in the absence of GlcN6P, demonstrating it has evolved strict dependence on the exogenous small molecule. The ribozyme showcases the ability of RNA to co-opt non-covalently bound small molecules to expand its chemical repertoire. Analogue studies demonstrate that some molecules other than GlcN6P, such as l-serine (but not d-serine), can function as weak activators. This suggests how coenzyme use by RNA world ribozymes may have led to evolution of proteins. Primordial cofactor-dependent ribozymes may have evolved to bind their cofactors covalently. If amino acids were used as cofactors, this could have driven the evolution of RNA aminoacylation. The ability to make covalently bound peptide coenzymes may have further increased the fitness of such primordial ribozymes, providing a selective pressure for the invention of translation.
catalytic RNA; enzymatic cofactor; RNA world
Hydrothermal vent organisms have evolved physiological adaptations to cope with extreme abiotic conditions including temperature and pH. To date, acid-base regulatory abilities of vent organisms are poorly investigated, although this physiological feature is essential for survival in low pH environments. We report the acid-base regulatory mechanisms of a hydrothermal vent crab, Xenograpsus testudinatus, endemic to highly acidic shallow-water vent habitats with average environment pH-values ranging between 5.4 and 6.6. Within a few hours, X. testudinatus restores extracellular pH (pHe) in response to environmental acidification of pH 6.5 (1.78 kPa pCO2) accompanied by an increase in blood HCO3- levels from 8.8 ± 0.3 to 31 ± 6 mM. Branchial Na+/K+-ATPase (NKA) and V-type H+-ATPase (VHA), the major ion pumps involved in branchial acid-base regulation, showed dynamic increases in response to acidified conditions on the mRNA, protein and activity level. Immunohistochemical analyses demonstrate the presence of NKA in basolateral membranes, whereas the VHA is predominantly localized in cytoplasmic vesicles of branchial epithelial- and pillar-cells. X. testudinatus is closely related to other strong osmo-regulating brachyurans, which is also reflected in the phylogeny of the NKA. Accordingly, our results suggest that the evolution of strong ion regulatory abilities in brachyuran crabs that allowed the occupation of ecological niches in euryhaline, freshwater, and terrestrial habitats are probably also linked to substantial acid-base regulatory abilities. This physiological trait allowed X. testudinatus to successfully inhabit one of the world's most acidic marine environments.
hydrothermal vent; V-type H+-ATPase; Na+/K+-ATPase; hypercapnia; invertebrate physiology; gill; crustacean