Metabolic processes that underpin life on Earth have arisen spontaneously outside of cells. The serendipitous finding that metabolism – the cascade of reactions in all cells that provides them with the raw materials they need to survive – can happen in such simple conditions provides fresh insights into how the first life formed. It also suggests that the complex processes needed for life may have surprisingly humble origins.
"People have said that these pathways look so complex they couldn’t form by environmental chemistry alone," says Markus Ralser at the University of Cambridge who supervised the research.
But his findings suggest that many of these reactions could have occurred spontaneously in Earth’s early oceans, catalysed by metal ions rather than the enzymes that drive them in cells today.
The origin of metabolism is a major gap in our understanding of the emergence of life. “If you look at many different organisms from around the world, this network of reactions always looks very similar, suggesting that it must have come into place very early on in evolution, but no one knew precisely when or how,” says Ralser.