What powers life on earth? For scientists, this has always been a million-dollar question. Many have tried explaining life’s genesis through mitochondria, the “powerhouse of the cell”, and its ability to create Adenosine 5’-triphosphate (ATP), a chemical that provides energy to all life. But how ATP manages to do that has always remained a mystery.
However, a new study might have finally cracked the code by closely studying a process called “phosphorylation”, which allows ATP to be produced and provide energy. This is an advancement especially significant for the origin of life.
The science and other stuff to know
Phosphorylation is the addition of a phosphoryl (PO3) group to a molecule. In biological systems, this reaction is vital for the cellular storage and transfer of free energy using energy carrier molecules.
To become ATP, adenosine 5’-diphosphate (ADP) reacts with excess energy via phosphorylation to become chemical energy that can be used later. In a new study published in the journal PLOS, scientists tried to explain how ATP became the definitive energy-exuding chemical inside all life forms. What they discovered was that ATP did not become a powerhouse on its own, rather it needed help from water and another molecule called AcP.
The scientists found that when AcP reacted with water rich in ions of iron, it could readily phosphorylate ADP into ATP. This holds key to the ATP’s dominance. Water is one of the earliest elements on Earth and the ability of prebiotic AcP to readily act with iron-rich water to produce ATP is what had potentially made ATP the strongest.
Further experimentation led the team to believe that while AcP predated the emergence of ATP, the reason why ATP became the source of all life “is that its formation is chemically favored in aqueous solution under mild prebiotic conditions”.
The findings are a rare insight into the genesis of life, and one that could potentially assist other researchers that aim to understand the source of life and its energy center.
Scientists found that while the formation of ATP was possible in the presence of iron ions, they could not replicate the formation with other substitute metals or phosphorylating molecules. This is an important finding regarding iron’s role in sustaining life and could open new vistas for scientific studies into the benefits of iron.
The research team said ATP’s formation “favored aqueous solution under mild prebiotic conditions” and offered a window into the origin of life. As the earliest theories about the origins of life hinge on the idea that life originated in water, the findings could prove groundbreaking.
Scientists found that ATP rose to its position of authority due to the complexity of its chemistry in water. It could well be possible that as life tried progressing from its molecular form to a more complex composition, it was ATP’s own complexity that helped more complex organisms develop into living and breathing humans and animals. And that is certain to excite many into pursuing the theory further.