Study could provide clues to extraterrestrial life
An Indian-origin researcher and a team of scientists from Rutgers University have identified part of a protein that could provide clues to detecting planets on the verge of producing life.
New Delhi: An Indian-origin researcher and a team of scientists from Rutgers University have identified part of a protein that could provide clues to detecting planets on the verge of producing life.
According to Vikas Nanda, a researcher at the Center for Advanced Biotechnology and Medicine (CABM) at Rutgers, the research has important implications in the search for extraterrestrial life because it gives researchers a new clue to look for.
Based on laboratory studies, Rutgers scientists say one of the most likely chemical candidates that kickstarted life was a simple peptide -- a constituent of a protein made up of a few elemental building blocks known as amino acids -- with two nickel atoms. The two nickel atoms are called “Nickelback” because their backbone nitrogen atoms bond two critical nickel atoms.
“Scientists believe that sometime between 3.5 and 3.8 billion years ago, there was a tipping point, something that kick-started the change from prebiotic chemistry - molecules before life - to living, biological systems,” Nanda said. “We believe the change was sparked by a few small precursor proteins that performed key steps in an ancient metabolic reaction. And we think we’ve found one of these ‘pioneer peptides’.
“When scouring the universe with telescopes and probes for signs of past, present or emerging life, NASA scientists look for specific ‘biosignatures’ known to be harbingers of life. Peptides like nickelback could become the latest biosignature employed by NASA to detect planets on the verge of producing life,” Nanda said.
An original instigating chemical, the researchers reasoned, would need to be simple enough to be able to assemble spontaneously in a prebiotic soup. But it would have to be sufficiently chemically active to possess the potential to take energy from the environment to drive a biochemical process.
To do so, the researchers adopted a “reductionist” approach: They started by examining existing contemporary proteins known to be associated with metabolic processes. Knowing the proteins were too complex to have emerged early on, they pared them down to their basic structure.