'Impossible' chemistry may reveal origins of life on Earth

Experiments suggest that metabolism could have begun spontaneously on our primordial planet—and that scientists may need to rethink how we define life.

'Impossible' chemistry may reveal origins of life on Earth
Photograph by Robert Harding Picture Library, Nat Geo Image Collection

Markus Ralser never intended to study the origin of life. His research focused mainly on how cells feed themselves, and on how these processes can go wrong in organisms that are stressed or ill. But about a decade ago, by sheer accident, Ralser and his team made a shocking discovery.

The group, based at the University of Cambridge at the time, was studying glycolysis, a process that breaks down sugar in a series of chemical reactions, releasing energy that cells can use. When they used sensitive techniques to track the many steps in the process, they were surprised to find that some of the reactions seemed to be “happening spontaneously,” says Ralser, who is now based at the Francis Crick Institute in London. In control experiments that lacked some of the required molecules for the reactions, parts of glycolysis were happening anyway.

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