The role of biomacromolecular crowding, ionic strength, and physicochemical gradients in the complexities of life's emergence.

Research paper by Jan J Spitzer, Bert B Poolman

Indexed on: 03 Jun '09Published on: 03 Jun '09Published in: Microbiology and molecular biology reviews : MMBR


We have developed a general scenario of prebiotic physicochemical evolution during the Earth's Hadean eon and reviewed the relevant literature. We suggest that prebiotic chemical evolution started in microspaces with membranous walls, where external temperature and osmotic gradients were coupled to free-energy gradients of potential chemical reactions. The key feature of this scenario is the onset of an emergent evolutionary transition within the microspaces that is described by the model of complex vectorial chemistry. This transition occurs at average macromolecular crowding of 20 to 30% of the cell volume, when the ranges of action of stabilizing colloidal forces (screened electrostatic forces, hydration, and excluded volume forces) become commensurate. Under these conditions, the macromolecules divide the interior of microspaces into dynamically crowded macromolecular regions and topologically complementary electrolyte pools. Small ions and ionic metabolites are transported vectorially between the electrolyte pools and through the (semiconducting) electrolyte pathways of the crowded macromolecular regions from their high electrochemical potential (where they are biochemically produced) to their lower electrochemical potential (where they are consumed). We suggest a sequence of tentative transitions between major evolutionary periods during the Hadean eon as follows: (i) the early water world, (ii) the appearance of land masses, (iii) the pre-RNA world, (iv) the onset of complex vectorial chemistry, and (v) the RNA world and evolution toward Darwinian thresholds. We stress the importance of high ionic strength of the Hadean ocean (short Debye's lengths) and screened electrostatic interactions that enabled the onset of the vectorial structure of the cytoplasm and the possibility of life's emergence.