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Phys Life Rev. 2009 Mar;6(1):23-52. doi: 10.1016/j.plrev.2008.12.003. Epub 2009 Jan 8.

Origin and evolution of metabolic pathways.

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Laboratory of Microbial and Molecular Evolution, Department of Evolutionary Biology, Via Romana 17-19, University of Florence, Italy.


The emergence and evolution of metabolic pathways represented a crucial step in molecular and cellular evolution. In fact, the exhaustion of the prebiotic supply of amino acids and other compounds that were likely present in the ancestral environment, imposed an important selective pressure, favoring those primordial heterotrophic cells which became capable of synthesizing those molecules. Thus, the emergence of metabolic pathways allowed primitive organisms to become increasingly less-dependent on exogenous sources of organic compounds. Comparative analyses of genes and genomes from organisms belonging to Archaea, Bacteria and Eukarya revealed that, during evolution, different forces and molecular mechanisms might have driven the shaping of genomes and the arisal of new metabolic abilities. Among these gene elongations, gene and operon duplications undoubtedly played a major role since they can lead to the (immediate) appearance of new genetic material that, in turn, might undergo evolutionary divergence giving rise to new genes coding for new metabolic abilities. Gene duplication has been invoked in the different schemes proposed to explain why and how the extant metabolic pathways have arisen and shaped. Both the analysis of completely sequenced genomes and directed evolution experiments strongly support one of them, i.e. the patchwork hypothesis, according to which metabolic pathways have been assembled through the recruitment of primitive enzymes that could react with a wide range of chemically related substrates. However, the analysis of the structure and organization of genes belonging to ancient metabolic pathways, such as histidine biosynthesis and nitrogen fixation, suggested that other different hypothesis, i.e. the retrograde hypothesis or the semi-enzymatic theory, may account for the arisal of some metabolic routes.

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