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Trends Genet. 2005 Dec;21(12):647-54. Epub 2005 Oct 11.

On the origin of genomes and cells within inorganic compartments.

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  • 1National Center for Biotechnology Information, National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health, Bethesda, MD 20894, USA.


Building on the model of Russell and Hall for the emergence of life at a warm submarine hydrothermal vent, we suggest that, within a hydrothermally formed system of contiguous iron-sulfide (FeS) compartments, populations of virus-like RNA molecules, which eventually encoded one or a few proteins each, became the agents of both variation and selection. The initial darwinian selection was for molecular self-replication. Combinatorial sorting of genetic elements among compartments would have resulted in preferred proliferation and selection of increasingly complex molecular ensembles--those compartment contents that achieved replication advantages. The last universal common ancestor (LUCA) we propose was not free-living but an inorganically housed assemblage of expressed and replicable genetic elements. The evolution of the enzymatic systems for (i) DNA replication; and (ii) membrane and cell wall biosynthesis, enabled independent escape of the first archaebacterial and eubacterial cells from their hydrothermal hatchery, within which the LUCA itself remained confined.

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