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An appeal to magic? The discovery of a non-enzymatic metabolism and its role in the origins of life

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journal contribution
posted on 17.11.2020, 14:47 by Markus Ralser
Until recently, prebiotic precursors to metabolic pathways were not known. In parallel, chemistry achieved the synthesis of amino acids and nucleotides only in reaction sequences that do not resemble metabolic pathways, and by using condition step changes, incompatible with enzyme evolution. As a consequence, it was frequently assumed that the topological organisation of the metabolic pathway has formed in a Darwinian process. The situation changed with the discovery of a non-enzymatic glycolysis and pentose phosphate pathway. The suite of metabolism-like reactions is promoted by a metal cation, (Fe(II)), abundant in Archean sediment, and requires no condition step changes. Knowledge about metabolism-like reaction topologies has accumulated since, and supports non-enzymatic origins of gluconeogenesis, the S-adenosylmethionine pathway, the Krebs cycle, as well as CO2 fixation. It now feels that it is only a question of time until essential parts of metabolism can be replicated non-enzymatically. Here, I review the 'accidents' that led to the discovery of the non-enzymatic glycolysis, and on the example of a chemical network based on hydrogen cyanide, I provide reasoning why metabolism-like non-enzymatic reaction topologies may have been missed for a long time. Finally, I discuss that, on the basis of non-enzymatic metabolism-like networks, one can elaborate stepwise scenarios for the origin of metabolic pathways, a situation that increasingly renders the origins of metabolism a tangible problem.

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