“The Enigma Project” –Scientists Search for Evidence of Nanomachines that Evolved Before Emergence of Life


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What are the origins of life on Earth and possibly elsewhere? Did "protein nanomachines" evolve here before life began to catalyze and support the development of living things? Could the same thing have happened on Mars, the moons of Jupiter and Neptune, and elsewhere in the universe?

A Rutgers University-led team of scientists called ENIGMA, for "Evolution of Nanomachines in Geospheres and Microbial Ancestors," will try to answer those questions over the next five years, thanks to a NASA grant and membership in the NASA Astrobiology Institute.


All life on Earth depends on the movement of electrons; life literally is electric. We breathe in oxygen and breathe out water vapor and carbon dioxide, and in that process we transfer hydrogen atoms, which contain a proton and an electron, to oxygen to make water (H20). We move electrons from the food we eat to the oxygen in the air to derive energy. Every organism on Earth moves electrons to generate energy.

Iron- and sulfur-containing minerals found on the early Earth (greigite, left, is one example) share a remarkably similar molecular structure with metals found in modern proteins (ferredoxin, right, is one example). Did the first proteins at the dawn of life on Earth interact directly with rocks to promote catalysis of life? (Vikas Nanda/Center for Advanced Biotechnology and Medicine).



ENIGMA is a team of primarily Rutgers University researchers that is trying to understand the earliest evolution of these processes, and they think that hydrogen was probably one of the most abundant gases in the early Earth that supported life.

We've been looking for evidence of life on Mars since the Viking mission, which landed in 1976. The researchers think it will be very difficult to prove there is life on Mars today, but there may be signatures of life that existed on Mars in the distant past. Mars certainly had a lot of water on it and had an atmosphere, but that's all largely gone now. A proposed mission to Europa – an ice-covered moon of Jupiter – is in the planning phase. NASA's Cassini mission to investigate Titan, a moon of Neptune, revealed liquid methane over what they think is water – very cold, shallow oceans – so there may be life on Titan.

They are enzymes that physically move. Each time we take a breath, an enzyme in every cell allows you to transfer electrons to oxygen. Enzymes, like all proteins, are made up of amino acids, of which there are 20 that are used in life. Early on, amino acids were delivered to Earth by meteorites, and the Rutgers team think some of these amino acids could have been coupled together and made nanomachines before life began.

That's what the research team is looking to see if they can recreate, using the tens of thousands of protein structures in the Protein Data Bank at Rutgers together with colleagues in the Center for Advanced Biotechnology and Medicine.

Fast forward to human evolution in 2018, and the image at the top of the page: When it comes to matching simplicity with staggering creative potential, DNA holds the prize. Built from an alphabet of just four nucleic acids, DNA provides the floorplan from which all earthly life is constructed. But DNA's remarkable versatility doesn't end there. Researchers have managed to coax segments of DNA into performing a host of useful tricks. DNA sequences can form logical circuits for nanoelectronic applications. Through a process known as strand displacement, a tiny walking device composed of DNA moves across a surface in a cartwheeling motion. The new device performed this feat more rapidly than any DNA walker designed to date.

They have been used to perform sophisticated mathematical computations, like finding the optimal path between multiple cities. And DNA is the basis for a new breed of tiny robots and nanomachines. Measuring thousands of times smaller than a bacterium, such devices can carry out a multitude of tasks. 

The Daily Galaxy via Rutgers University






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