Journal of Molecular Evolution

, Volume 53, Issue 4–5, pp 555–595 | Cite as

Obcells as Proto-Organisms: Membrane Heredity, Lithophosphorylation, and the Origins of the Genetic Code, the First Cells, and Photosynthesis

  • Thomas  Cavalier-Smith


I attempt to sketch a unified picture of the origin of living organisms in their genetic, bioenergetic, and structural aspects. Only selection at a higher level than for individual selfish genes could power the cooperative macromolecular coevolution required for evolving the genetic code. The protein synthesis machinery is too complex to have evolved before membranes. Therefore a symbiosis of membranes, replicators, and catalysts probably mediated the origin of the code and the transition from a nucleic acid world of independent molecular replicators to a nucleic acid/protein/lipid world of reproducing organisms. Membranes initially functioned as supramolecular structures to which different replicators attached and were selected as a higher-level reproductive unit: the proto-organism. I discuss the roles of stereochemistry, gene divergence, codon capture, and selection in the code's origin. I argue that proteins were primarily structural not enzymatic and that the first biological membranes consisted of amphipathic peptidyl-tRNAs and prebiotic mixed lipids. The peptidyl-tRNAs functioned as genetically-specified lipid analogues with hydrophobic tails (ancestral signal peptides) and hydrophilic polynucleotide heads. Protoribosomes arose from two cooperating RNAs: peptidyl transferase (large subunit) and mRNA-binder (small subunit). Early proteins had a second key role: coupling energy flow to the phosphorylation of gene and peptide precursors, probably by lithophosphorylation by membrane-anchored kinases scavenging geothermal polyphosphate stocks. These key evolutionary steps probably occurred on the outer surface of an `inside out-cell' or obcell, which evolved an unambiguous hydrophobic code with four prebiotic amino acids and proline, and initiation by isoleucine anticodon CAU; early proteins and nucleozymes were all membrane-attached. To improve replication, translation, and lithophosphorylation, hydrophilic substrate-binding and catalytic domains were later added to signal peptides, yielding a ten-acid doublet code. A primitive proto-ecology of molecular scavenging, parasitism, and predation evolved among obcells. I propose a new theory for the origin of the first cell: fusion of two cup-shaped obcells, or hemicells, to make a protocell with double envelope, internal genome and ribosomes, protocytosol, and periplasm. Only then did water-soluble enzymes, amino acid biosynthesis, and intermediary metabolism evolve in a concentrated autocatalytic internal cytosolic soup, causing 12 new amino acid assignments, termination, and rapid freezing of the 22-acid code. Anticodons were recruited sequentially: GNN, CNN, INN, and *UNN. CO2 fixation, photoreduction, and lipid synthesis probably evolved in the protocell before photophosphorylation. Signal recognition particles, chaperones, compartmented proteases, and peptidoglycan arose prior to the last common ancestor of life, a complex autotrophic, anaerobic green bacterium.

Key words: Obcell — Genetic code — Polyphosphate bioenergetics — Membrane heredity — Protocell — Origin of photosynthesis — Cenancestor 


Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.

Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.

Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag New York Inc. 2001

Authors and Affiliations

  • Thomas  Cavalier-Smith
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of Zoology, University of Oxford, South Parks Road, Oxford, OX1 3PS, United KingdomGB

Personalised recommendations