, Volume 43, Issue 3, pp 293-303

The puzzle of the Krebs citric acid cycle: Assembling the pieces of chemically feasible reactions, and opportunism in the design of metabolic pathways during evolution

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Abstract

The evolutionary origin of the Krebs citric acid cycle has been for a long time a model case in the understanding of the origin and evolution of metabolic pathways: How can the emergence of such a complex pathway be explained? A number of speculative studies have been carried out that have reached the conclusion that the Krebs cycle evolved from pathways for amino acid biosynthesis, but many important questions remain open: Why and how did the full pathway emerge from there? Are other alternative routes for the same purpose possible? Are they better or worse? Have they had any opportunity to be developed in cellular metabolism evolution? We have analyzed the Krebs cycle as a problem of chemical design to oxidize acetate yielding reduction equivalents to the respiratory chain to make ATP. Our analysis demonstrates that although there are several different chemical solutions to this problem, the design of this metabolic pathway as it occurs in living cells is the best chemical solution: It has the least possible number of steps and it also has the greatest ATP yielding. Study of the evolutionary possibilities of each one-taking the available material to build new pathways-demonstrates that the emergence of the Krebs cycle has been a typical case of opportunism in molecular evolution. Our analysis proves, therefore, that the role of opportunism in evolution has converted a problem of several possible chemical solutions into asingle-solution problem, with the actual Krebs cycle demonstrated to be the best possible chemical design. Our results also allow us to derive the rules under which metabolic pathways emerged during the origin of life.

Correspondence to: E. Meléndez-Hevia