The substance that could have originally sparked life has been widely speculated upon throughout history. While it was always known that some kind of “spark” was necessary to produce life, only recently have scientists began to investigate and hypothesize the source of that spark. Could the theoretical “primordial soup” of organic and inorganic molecules such as those present in tide pools on Earth have been the necessary components that initiated the start of life?
Scientists at Rutgers University claim to have found it. It is a microscopic substance described in the journal Science Advances. And it may be the substance that gave rise to life. It’s a peptide they’ve named Nickelback.
It is a piece of protein containing nickel atoms. “It is believed that between 3.5 and 3.8 billion years ago there was a tipping point. Something that initiated the shift from prebiotic chemistry to living biological systems,” they said.
“We believe that the change was triggered by a few precursor proteins. They took key steps in an ancient metabolic reaction. We seem to have found one of these pioneering peptides,” he added.
Nickel was an abundant metal in the early oceans that covered the Earth’s surface. As Rutgers explains in a statement, when the nickel atoms bind to the peptide, they become powerful catalysts. They attract extra protons and electrons and produce hydrogen gas.
Meanwhile, hydrogen was more abundant on the early Earth. And it would have been a key source of energy to drive metabolism. “This is important. There are many theories about the origins of life. But there is very little actual laboratory evidence for these ideas,” they explained.
“This work shows that not only are simple protein metabolic enzymes possible. They are also very stable and very active. This is a strong candidate for the substance that could have originated life.”
The scientists who conducted the study belong to a special team at Rutgers. It is called Evolution of Nanomachines in Geospheres and Microbial Ancestors (ENIGMA). It is part of NASA’s Astrobiology Program. Its goal is to understand how proteins evolved. They want to know how they drove the origin of life on Earth.
When exploring the cosmos with telescopes or space probes, NASA scientists look for specific “biosignatures.” These are known as precursors of life. Each can be detected by how they reflect light at different wavelengths.
“Peptides like Nickelback could become this ultimate biological signature. NASA could detect planets on the verge of producing life,” Nanda notes.