Scientists Identify Substance That May Have Sparked Life On Earth

A portion of a protein that may hold the key to identifying planets on the edge of supporting life has been discovered by a group of Rutgers researchers working to identify the earliest beginnings of metabolism, the set of fundamental chemical events that originally powered life on Earth.

The research, published in Science Advances, has important implications in the search for extraterrestrial life because it gives researchers a new clue to look for, said Vikas Nanda, a researcher at the Center for Advanced Biotechnology and Medicine (CABM) at Rutgers.

Based on laboratory studies, Rutgers scientists say one of the most likely chemical candidates that kickstarted life was a simple peptide with two nickel atoms they are calling “Nickelback” not because it has anything to do with the Canadian rock band, but because its backbone nitrogen atoms bond two critical nickel atoms. A peptide is a constituent of a protein made up of a few elemental building blocks known as amino acids.

“Scientists believe that sometime between 3.5 and 3.8 billion years ago there was a tipping point, something that kickstarted the change from prebiotic chemistry — molecules before life — to living, biological systems,” Nanda said. “We believe the change was sparked by a few small precursor proteins that performed key steps in an ancient metabolic reaction. And we think we’ve found one of these ‘pioneer peptides’.”

The scientists conducting the study are part of a Rutgers-led team called Evolution of Nanomachines in Geospheres and Microbial Ancestors (ENIGMA), which is part of the Astrobiology program at NASA. The researchers are seeking to understand how proteins evolved to become the predominant catalyst of life on Earth.

For decades, researchers have speculated that life may have originated on Earth near ocean vents. But this new discovery could dramatically rewrite the history of life on Earth.

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