Metabolism without cells? Metabolism before the development of RNA? A breakthrough discovery in the origin of life? Here is the introductory paragraph in a article in New Scientist describing a research study recently published in Molecular Systems Biology:
“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.”
The research “team took early ocean solutions and added substances known to be starting points for modern metabolic pathways, before heating the samples to between 50˚C and 70˚C – the sort of temperatures you might have found near a hydrothermal vent – for 5 hours.”
Surprised by the findings, senior researcher Markus Ralser of the University of Cambridge commented:
“In the beginning we had hoped to find one reaction or two maybe, but the results were amazing. We could reconstruct two metabolic pathways almost entirely.”
An important new insight? Possibly. However, not everyone is convinced. Harvard University origin of life researcher Jack Szostak comments:
"Given the data, one might well conclude that any organics in the ocean would have been totally degraded, rather than forming the basis of modern metabolism. I would conclude that metabolism had to evolve, within cells, one reaction and one catalyst at a time."
Stay tuned. The study of acellular metabolism is likely just beginning.