Origins of Life and Evolution of Biospheres

, Volume 37, Issue 2, pp 143–152 | Cite as

Hydrothermal Reactions of Pyruvic Acid: Synthesis, Selection, and Self-Assembly of Amphiphilic Molecules

  • Robert M. HazenEmail author
  • David W. Deamer


Selection and self-assembly of organic compounds in aqueous phases must have been a primary process leading to emergent molecular complexity and ultimately to the origin of life. Facile reactions of pyruvic acid under hydrothermal conditions produce a complex mixture of larger organic molecules, some of which are amphiphiles that readily self-assemble into cell-sized vesicular structures. Chemical characterization of major components of this mixture reveals similarities to the suite of organic compounds present in the Murchison carbonaceous chondrite, some of whose molecules also self-assemble into membranous vesicles. Physical properties of the products are thus relevant to understanding the prebiotic emergence of molecular complexity. These results suggest that a robust family of prebiotic reaction pathways produces similar products over a range of geochemical and astrochemical environments.


pyruvic acid hydrothermal system Murchison carbonaceous chondrite self-assembly amphiphile 



We gratefully acknowledge the analytical assistance of George Cody (GCMS) and Marilyn Fogel (SELDI). Ren Lu, Berndt Simoniet, Jeremy Sturm, and Mark Teece contributed helpful comments and suggestions. Hatten S. Yoder, Jr. provided invaluable assistance in high-pressure/high-temperature experiments prior to his untimely death in August 2003. This work was supported by grants from NSF Division of Geochemistry (EAR9817964), NASA Exobiology Program (NAGW-4665), NASA Astrobiology Institute (NASA Cooperative Agreement NCC2-1056), and the Carnegie Institution of Washington.


  1. Blau K, King GS (eds) (1977) Handbook of derivatives for chromatography. Heyden, Bellmawr, New JerseyGoogle Scholar
  2. Boyer PD (1973) Carboxylation and decarboxylation. In The enzymes, vol 6, 3rd edn. Academic, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  3. Brown BR (1951) The mechanism of thermal decarboxylation. Quart Rev 5:131–146CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Carey FA, Sundberg RJ (1993) Advanced organic chemistry, part A: structure and mechanisms. Plenum, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  5. Cody GD, Boctor NZ, Filley TR, Hazen RM, Scott, JH, Sharma A, Yoder HS Jr (2000) Primordial synthesis of carbonylated iron–sulfur clusters and the synthesis of pyruvate. Science 289:1337–1340PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Cody GD, Boctor NZ, Hazen RM, Brandes JA, Morowitz HJ, Yoder HS Jr (2001) Geochemical roots of autotrophic carbon fixation: hydrothermal experiments in the system citric acid-H2O-(FeS)-(NiS). Geochem Cosmochim Acta 65:3557–3576CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Corliss JB, Baross JA, Hoffman SE (1981) A hypothesis concerning the relationship between submarine hot springs and the origin of life on Earth. Oceanol Acta, Proc 26th Int Geol Congr, Geology of the Oceans Symp., pp. 59–69Google Scholar
  8. Deamer DW, Pashley RM (1989) Amphiphilic components of the Murchison carbonaceous chondrite: surface properties and membrane formation. Orig Life Evol Biosph 19:21–38PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Deamer DW, Dworkin JA, Sandford SA, Bernstein MP, Allamandola LJ (2002) The first cell membranes. Astrobiology 2:371–382PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Dobson CM, Ellison GB, Tuck AF, Vaida V (2000) Atmospheric aerosols as prebiotic chemical reactors. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA 97:11864–11868PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Dworkin JP, Deamer DW, Sanford SA, Allamandola LJ (2001) Self-assembling amphiphilic molecules: synthesis in simulated interstellar/precometary ices. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA 98:815–819PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Hargreaves WR, Deamer DW (1978). Liposomes from ionic, single-chain amphiphiles. Biochemistry 17:3759–3768PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Hazen RM (2005) Genesis: the scientific quest for life’s origin. Joseph Henry, Washington, District of ColumbiaGoogle Scholar
  14. Heikkila RE, Deamer DW, Cornwell DG (1970) Solution of fatty acids from monolayers spread at the air–water interface: identification of phase transformations and the estimation of surface charge. J Lipid Res 11:195–200PubMedGoogle Scholar
  15. Holm NG (ed) (1992) Marine hydrothermal systems and the origin of life. Kluwer, Dordrecht, Netherlands.Google Scholar
  16. Luisi PL, Varela FJ (1989) Self-replicating micelles: a chemical version of a minimal autopoietic system. Orig Life Evol Biosph 19:633–643CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Morowitz HJ (1992) Beginnings of cellular life. Yale University Press, New Haven, ConnecticutGoogle Scholar
  18. Morowitz HJ (2002) The emergence of everything. Oxford University Press, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  19. Morowitz HJ, Heinz B, Deamer DW (1988) The chemical logic of a minimum protocell. Orig Life Evol Biosph 18:281–287Google Scholar
  20. Russell MJ, Hall AJ (1997) The emergence of life from iron monsulfide bubbles at a submarine hydrothermal redox and pH front. J Geol Soc 154:377–402Google Scholar
  21. Segre D, Deamer DW, Lancet D (2001) The lipid world. Orig Life Evol Biosph 31:119–145PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Shock EL (1992) Chemical environments of submarine hydrothermal systems. Orig Life Evol Biosph 22:67–107PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Shock EL, McCollum T, Schulte MD (1996) Geochemical constraints on chemolithoautotrophic reactions in hydrothermal systems. Orig Life Evol Biosph 25:141–159CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Wächtershäuser G (1988a) Before enzymes and templates: theory of surface metabolism. Microbiol Rev 52:452–484PubMedGoogle Scholar
  25. Wächtershäuser G (1990) Evolution of the first metabolic cycle. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA 87:200–204PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. Walde P, Wick R, Fresta M, Mangone A, Luisi PL (1994) Autopoietic self-reproduction of fatty acid vesicles. J Am Chem Soc 116:11649–11654CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Yoder HS Jr (1950) High–low quartz inversion up to 10,000 bars. Trans Am Geophys Union 31:821–835Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media, Inc. 2006

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Carnegie Institution and NASA Astrobiology InstituteWashingtonUSA
  2. 2.Department of Chemistry and BiochemistryUniversity of CaliforniaSanta CruzUSA

Personalised recommendations