By Mark Waghorn via SWNS
The building blocks of life on Earth were created... by METAL, according to new research.
Basic compounds of proteins originated in the inanimate material, say scientists.
The discovery turns biology on its head - showing iron, copper, gold and silver drove evolution.
They formed the structures of chemicals in the ancient planet's primordial soup.
Primitive life was born from simple, non-living stuff. It has implications in the search for aliens.
The same may have happened on Mars - and many worlds outside the solar system.
Lead author Professor Yana Bromberg, of Rutgers University in the US, said: "We have very little information about how life arose on this planet."
The microbiologist's work focuses on deciphering DNA blueprints of life's molecular machinery.
She said: "This explanation could also potentially contribute to our search for life on other planets and planetary bodies."
It also opens the door to better medical devices - and more human-like robots.
As Star Trek's Dr. Spock might say: "It's life, Jim, but not as we know it."
Prof Bromberg said: "Our finding of the specific structural building blocks is also possibly relevant for synthetic biology efforts, where scientists aim to construct specifically active proteins anew."
The US team actually began by asking: "What properties define life as we know it?"
They concluded it would need to collect energy from sources such as the Sun or hydrothermal vents.
In molecular terms, this would mean the ability to shuffle electrons was paramount.
The best vehicles for transfer of the elementary particle of atoms are metals - think standard electrical wires.
Most biological activities are carried out by proteins - so Prof Bromberg and colleagues decided to explore the combination of the two.
Computer simulations analyzed metal-binding proteins across billions of years.
The study compared all existing types to establish common features based on the idea they were present in ancestors.
They would have diversified and been passed down to become the range we see today.
The vast majority were found to be somewhat similar - regardless of the metal, the organism they come from or the protein as a whole.
Prof Bromberg said: "We saw the metal-binding cores of existing proteins are indeed similar even though the proteins themselves may not be."
They are built as chains of amino acids, which then fold into unique three-dimensional shapes.
She went on: "We also saw these metal-binding cores are often made up of repeated substructures, kind of like LEGO blocks.
"Curiously, these blocks were also found in other regions of the proteins, not just metal-binding cores, and in many other proteins that were not considered in our study.
"Our observation suggests rearrangements of these little building blocks may have had a single or a small number of common ancestors and given rise to the whole range of proteins and their functions that are currently available - that is, to life as we know it."
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