A reconstruction of Earth’s earliest ocean in the laboratory revealed the spontaneous occurrence of the chemical reactions used by modern cells to synthesize many of the crucial organic molecules of metabolism. Previously, it was assumed that these reactions were carried out in modern cells by metabolic enzymes, highly complex molecular machines that came into existence during the evolution of modern organisms.
Almost 4 billion years ago life on Earth began in iron-rich oceans that dominated the surface of the planet. An open question for scientists is when and how cellular metabolism, the network of chemical reactions necessary to produce nucleic acids, amino acids and lipids, the building blocks of life, appeared on the scene.
The observed chemical reactions occurred in the absence of enzymes but were made possible by the chemical molecules found in the Archean sea. Finding a series of reactions that resembles the “core of cellular metabolism” suggests that metabolism predates the origin of life. This implies that, at least initially, metabolism may not have been shaped by evolution but by molecules like RNA formed through the chemical conditions that prevailed in the earliest oceans.