Dividing Droplets Could Explain Life’s Origin
A very intriguing idea is discussed by Natalie Wolchover in Quanta:
A Collaboration of physicists and biologists in Germany has found a simple mechanism that might have enabled liquid droplets to evolve into living cells in early Earth’s primordial soup.
Origin-of-life researchers have praised the minimalism of the idea. Ramin Golestanian, a professor of theoretical physics at the University of Oxford who was not involved in the research, called it a big achievement that suggests that “the general phenomenology of life formation is a lot easier than one might think.”
The central question about the origin of life has been how the first cells arose from primitive precursors. What were those precursors, dubbed “protocells,” and how did they come alive? Proponents of the “membrane-first” hypothesis have argued that a fatty-acid membrane was needed to corral the chemicals of life and incubate biological complexity. But how could something as complex as a membrane start to self-replicate and proliferate, allowing evolution to act on it?
In 1924, Alexander Oparin, the Russian biochemist who first envisioned a hot, briny primordial soup as the source of life’s humble beginnings, proposed that the mystery protocells might have been liquid droplets — naturally forming, membrane-free containers that concentrate chemicals and thereby foster reactions. In recent years, droplets have been found to perform a range of essential functions inside modern cells, reviving Oparin’s long-forgotten speculation about their role in evolutionary history. But neither he nor anyone else could explain how droplets might have proliferated, growing and dividing and, in the process, evolving into the first cells.
Now, the new work by David Zwicker and collaborators at the Max Planck Institute for the Physics of Complex Systems and the Max Planck Institute of Molecular Cell Biology and Genetics, both in Dresden, suggests an answer. The scientists studied the physics of “chemically active” droplets, which cycle chemicals in and out of the surrounding fluid, and discovered that these droplets tend to grow to cell size and divide, just like cells. This “active droplet” behavior differs from the passive and more familiar tendencies of oil droplets in water, which glom together into bigger and bigger droplets without ever dividing.
If chemically active droplets can grow to a set size and divide of their own accord, then “it makes it more plausible that there could have been spontaneous emergence of life from nonliving soup,” said Frank Jülicher, a biophysicist in Dresden and a co-author of the new paper.
The findings, reported in Nature Physics last month, paint a possible picture of life’s start by explaining “how cells made daughters,” said Zwicker, who is now a postdoctoral researcher at Harvard University. “This is, of course, key if you want to think about evolution.”
Luca Giomi, a theoretical biophysicist at Leiden University in the Netherlands who studies the possible physical mechanisms behind the origin of life, said the new proposal is significantly simpler than other mechanisms of protocell division that have been considered, calling it “a very promising direction.”
However, . . .