Spontaneous Chemistry in Cells May Explain the Origins of Life

Eric Sentell

Metastatic Melanoma CellsNational Cancer Institute

Why Does Life Exist?

A surprising, accidental discovery could help answer the age-old question, "Why are we here?"

It's a question with both philosophical and literal dimensions.

Philosophically, the question "Why are we here?" forces us to consider our purpose in life. What should drive us? To what should we devote our lives?

Literally, "Why are we here?" makes us wonder both why and how we exist to ask such philosophical questions. How did life form in the first place? How did the processes of life result in thinking humans?

The chemist Markus Rasler stumbled upon an "impossible chemistry" in living cells.

A Spontaneous "Engine" of Life

Rasler and his research team were studying glycolysis, the process of chemical reactions by which cells break down sugar and release its energy to be used by cells.

They used extremely sensitive techniques to observe every step in the glycolysis process, and they discovered, to their astonishment, that several steps seemed to be happening spontaneously.

Previously, scientists believed that glycolysis required the presence of certain molecules or else it would not occur. Rasler and his team removed some of those molecules, yet the glycolysis happened anyway.

In other words, one of the key "engines" of life can run on its own.

Chicken or Egg? Engine or Cell?

All theories about how life began struggle with a "chicken or egg" problem.

For cells to function, they need some kind of "engine" or method of transforming food into energy. Cells also need complex processes and chemical reactions to create an "engine."

So which comes first? The engine that powers the cell and its processes, or the cell structures and processes that create the engine?

Rasler's discovery that glycolysis could occur spontaneously and without several supposedly key ingredients and structures strongly suggests that the "engine" may come first.

Rasler's Continued Research

After their initial discovery of spontaneous glycolysis, Rasler and his research team dissolved 12 different chemicals used in glycolysis in pure water. Each chemical was dissolved on its own.

Then they heated the chemical-water mixtures at 70 degrees Celsius (158 degrees Fahrenheit) for five hours, mimicking the conditions near an underwater volcano.

Incredibly, seventeen different chemical reactions, including glycolysis and related processes, began happening in the mixtures.

Next, they added elements that were present in the ancient ocean billions of years ago. When they added iron, the reactions occurred faster and more fully.

Rasler and other researchers have replicated dozens of cellular metabolic processes in their labs, suggesting that ancient life may have begun through spontaneous reactions resulting from the right combination of chemicals existing in the right environment.

From there, life continued to evolve in its complexity. Cells developed more complex chemical processes and "engines," which in turn produced more complex cellular structures, which produced more complex processes and engines, and so on.

Until we became capable of studying the process in a lab.

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