Proton gradients at the origin of life

Lane N. BioEssays 39: 1600217 (2017)


Chemiosmotic coupling − the harnessing of electrochemical ion gradients across membranes to drive metabolism − is as universally conserved as the genetic code. As argued previously in these pages, such deep conservation suggests that ion gradients arose early in evolution, and might have played a role in the origin of life. Alkaline hydrothermal vents harbour pH gradients of similar polarity and magnitude to those employed by modern cells, one of many properties that make them attractive models for life’s origin. Their congruence with the physiology of anaerobic autotrophs that use the acetyl CoA pathway to fix CO2 gives the alkaline vent model broad appeal to biologists. Recently, however, a paper by Baz Jackson criticized the hypothesis, concluding that natural pH gradients were unlikely to have played any role in the origin of life. Unfortunately, Jackson mainly criticized his own interpretations of the theory, not what the literature says. This counterpoint is intended to set the record straight.

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