The limits of metabolic heredity in protocells

Nunes Palmeira R, Colnaghi M, Harrison S, Pomiankowski A, Lane N Proc. R. Soc. B. 289: 20221469


The universal core of metabolism could have emerged from thermodynamically favoured prebiotic pathways at the origin of life. Starting with H2 and CO2, the synthesis of amino acids and mixed fatty acids, which self-assemble into protocells, is favoured under warm anoxic conditions. Here, we address whether it is possible for protocells to evolve greater metabolic complexity, through positive feedbacks involving nucleotide catalysis. Using mathematical simulations to model metabolic heredity in protocells, based on branch points in protometabolic flux, we show that nucleotide catalysis can indeed promote protocell growth. This outcome only occurs when nucleotides directly catalyse CO2 fixation. Strong nucleotide catalysis of other pathways (e.g. fatty acids and amino acids) generally unbalances metabolism and slows down protocell growth, and when there is competition between catalytic functions cell growth collapses. Autocatalysis of nucleotide synthesis can promote growth but only if nucleotides also catalyse CO2 fixation; autocatalysis alone leads to the accumulation of nucleotides at the expense of CO2 fixation and protocell growth rate. Our findings offer a new framework for the emergence of greater metabolic complexity, in which nucleotides catalyse broad-spectrum processes such as CO2 fixation, hydrogenation and phosphorylation important to the emergence of genetic heredity at the origin of life.