The Origins of Cellular Life
Jason P. Schrum, Ting F. Zhu and Jack W. Szostak
Cold Spring Harb Perspect Biol doi: 10.1101/cshperspect.a002212 published online May 19, 2010
Understanding the origin of cellular life on Earth requires the discovery of plausible pathways for the transition from complex prebiotic chemistry to simple biology, defined as the emergence of chemical assemblies capable of Darwinian evolution. We have proposed that a simple primitive cell, or protocell, would consist of two key components: a protocell membrane that defines a spatially localized compartment, and an informational polymer that allows for the replication and inheritance of functional information. Recent studies of vesicles composed of fatty-acid membranes have shed considerable light on pathways for protocell growth and division, as well as means by which protocells could take up nutrients from their environment. Additional work with genetic polymers has provided insight into the potential for chemical genome replication and compatibility with membrane encapsulation. The integration of a dynamic fatty-acid compartment with robust, generalized genetic polymer replication would yield a laboratory model of a protocell with the potential for classical Darwinian biologi- cal evolution, and may help to evaluate potential pathways for the emergence of life on the early Earth. Here we discuss efforts to devise such an integrated protocell model.