Metabolism is primed through the formation of thioesters via acetyl CoA and the phosphorylation of substrates by ATP. Prebiotic equivalents such as methyl thioacetate and acetyl phosphate have been proposed to catalyse analogous reactions at the origin of life, but their propensity to hydrolyse challenges this view. Here we show that acetyl phosphate (AcP) can be synthesised in water within minutes from thioacetate (but not methyl thioacetate) under ambient conditions. AcP is stable over hours, depending on temperature, pH and cation content, giving it an ideal poise between stability and reactivity. We show that AcP can phosphorylate nucleotide precursors such as ribose to ribose-5-phosphate and adenosine to adenosine monophosphate, at modest (~2%) yield in water, and at a range of pH. AcP can also phosphorylate ADP to ATP in water over several hours at 50 °C. But AcP did not promote polymerization of either glycine or AMP. The amino group of glycine was preferentially acetylated by AcP, especially at alkaline pH, hindering the formation of polypeptides. AMP formed small stacks of up to 7 monomers, but these did not polymerise in the presence of AcP in aqueous solution. We conclude that AcP can phosphorylate biologically meaningful substrates in a manner analogous to ATP, promoting the origins of metabolism, but is unlikely to have driven polymerization of macromolecules such as polypeptides or RNA in free solution. This is consistent with the idea that a period of monomer (cofactor) catalysis preceded the emergence of polymeric enzymes or ribozymes at the origin of life.
Acetyl phosphate, ATP, Thioester, Phosphorylation, Metabolism, Origin of life