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Assembling LifeHow Can Life Begin on Earth and Other Habitable Planets?$
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David W. Deamer

Print publication date: 2019

Print ISBN-13: 9780190646387

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: November 2020

DOI: 10.1093/oso/9780190646387.001.0001

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PRINTED FROM OXFORD SCHOLARSHIP ONLINE (oxford.universitypressscholarship.com). (c) Copyright Oxford University Press, 2021. All Rights Reserved. An individual user may print out a PDF of a single chapter of a monograph in OSO for personal use. date: 17 October 2021

Self-Assembly Processes Were Essential for Life’s Origin

Self-Assembly Processes Were Essential for Life’s Origin

(p.51) 5 Self-Assembly Processes Were Essential for Life’s Origin
Assembling Life

David W. Deamer

Oxford University Press

In the absence of self-assembly processes, life as we know it would be impossible. This chapter begins by introducing self-assembly then focuses on the primary functions of membranes in living cells, most of which depend on highly evolved proteins embedded in lipid bilayers. These serve to capture light energy in photosynthesis and produce ion concentration gradients from which osmotic energy can be transduced into chemical energy. Although lipid bilayer membranes provide a permeability barrier, they cannot be absolutely impermeable because intracellular metabolic functions depend on external sources of nutrients. Therefore, another set of embedded proteins evolved to form transmembrane channels that allow selective permeation of certain solutes. The earliest life did not have proteins available, so in their absence what was the primary function of membranous compartments in prebiotic conditions? There are three possibilities. First, the compartments would allow encapsulated polymers to remain together as random mixtures called protocells. Second, populations of protocells that vary in composition would be subject to selective processes and the first steps of evolution. Even though any given protocell would be only transiently stable, certain mixtures of polymers would tend to stabilize the surrounding membrane. Such an encapsulated mixture would persist longer than the majority that would be dispersed and recycled, and these more robust protocells would tend to emerge as a kind of species. Last and perhaps most important, there had to be a point in early evolution at which light energy began to be captured by membranous structures, just as it is today. Bilayer membranes are not necessarily composed solely of amphiphilic molecules. They can also contain other nonpolar compounds that happen to be pigments capable of capturing light energy. This possibility is almost entirely unexplored, but the experiments are obvious and would be a fruitful focus for future research. Questions to be addressed: What is meant by self-assembly? Why is self-assembly important for the origin of life? What compounds can undergo self-assembly processes? How can mixtures of monomers and lipids assemble into protocells? We tend to think of living cells in terms of directed assembly.

Keywords:   Monomolecular layers, alpha-hemolysin, base stacking, electron transport enzymes, fluid-mosaic membrane, gramicidin, hydrophobic effect, ion channels, liposomes, membrane fluidity, permeability coefficient

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