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Four billion-year-old chemistry in cells today

Four billion-year-old chemistry in cells today - 24 July 2014. Copyright: iStock
News from: University of East Anglia

Parts of the primordial soup in which life arose have been maintained in our cells today according to scientists at the University of East Anglia.

Research published today in the Journal of Biological Chemistry reveals how cells in plants, yeast and very likely also in animals still perform ancient reactions thought to have been responsible for the origin of life – some four billion years ago.

The primordial soup theory suggests that life began in a pond or ocean as a result of the combination of metals, gases from the atmosphere and some form of energy, such as a lightning strike, to make the building blocks of proteins which would then evolve into all species.

The new research shows how small pockets of a cell – known as mitochondria – continue to perform similar reactions in our bodies today. These reactions involve iron, sulfur and electro-chemistry and are still important for functions such as respiration in animals and photosynthesis in plants.

Lead researcher Dr Janneke Balk, from UEA's school of Biological Sciences and the John Innes Centre, said: "Cells confine certain bits of dangerous chemistry to specific compartments of the cell.

"For example small pockets of a cell called mitochondria deal with electrochemistry and also with toxic sulfur metabolism. These are very ancient reactions thought to have been important for the origin of life.

"Our research has shown that a toxic sulfur compound is being exported by a mitochondrial transport protein to other parts of the cell. We need sulfur for making iron-sulfur catalysts, again a very ancient chemical process.

"The work shows that parts of the primordial soup in which life arose has been maintained in our cells today, and is in fact harnessed to maintain important biological reactions."

The research was carried out at UEA and JIC in collaboration with Principal Investigator Dr Hendrik van Veen at the University of Cambridge. It was funded by the BBSRC.

'A conserved mitochondrial ATP-binding cassette transporter exports glutathione polysulfide for cytosolic metal cofactor assembly' is published in the Journal of Biological Chemistry.

ENDS

About the University of East Anglia

The University of East Anglia (UEA) was founded in 1963 and this academic year celebrates its 50th anniversary. It has played a significant role in advancing human understanding and in 2012 the Times Higher Education ranked UEA as one of the 10 best universities in the world under 50 years of age. The university has graduated more than 100,000 students, attracted to Norwich Research Park some of Britain's key research institutes and a major University Hospital, and made a powerful cultural, social and economic impact on the region. UEA was ranked first in the Times Higher Education Student Experience Survey 2013. www.uea.ac.uk/50years

About the School of Biological Sciences

UEA's School of Biological Sciences is ranked 13th in the Guardian League Table 2014 and 90% of research activity was classified as internationally leading, excellent or recognised in the latest Research Assessment Exercise. The school was ranked first for teaching in the 2012 National Student Survey. www.uea.ac.uk/bio

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