The RNA world and the origin of metabolic enzymesMore about Open Access at the Crick
An RNA world has been placed centre stage for explaining the origin of life. Indeed, RNA is the most plausible molecule able to form both a (self)-replicator and to inherit information, necessities for initiating genetics. However, in parallel with self-replication, the proto-organism had to obtain the ability to catalyse supply of its chemical constituents, including the ribonucleotide metabolites required to replicate RNA. Although the possibility of an RNA-catalysed metabolic network has been considered, it is to be questioned whether RNA molecules, at least on their own, possess the required catalytic capacities. An alternative scenario for the origin of metabolism involves chemical reactions that are based on environmental catalysts. Recently, we described a non-enzymatic glycolysis and pentose phosphate pathway-like reactions catalysed by metal ions [mainly Fe(II)] and phosphate, simple inorganic molecules abundantly found in Archaean sediments. While the RNA world can serve to explain the origin of genetics, the origin of the metabolic network might thus date back to constraints of environmental chemistry. Interestingly, considering a metal-catalysed origin of metabolism gives rise to an attractive hypothesis about how the first enzymes could have formed: simple RNA or (poly)peptide molecules could have bound the metal ions, and thus increased their solubility, concentration and accessibility. In a second step, this would have allowed substrate specificity to evolve.