The Amyloid Hypothesis: Rewriting Life’s Origin Story

Origin Emergence of Life Concept Art

New research explores how amyloids, capable of forming under early Earth conditions and binding with RNA and DNA, may have played a key role in life’s emergence by increasing molecular stability and encouraging cooperation over competition.

The question of how living organisms emerged from non-living matter remains one of the most profound mysteries in science. Despite numerous theories, a conclusive explanation remains elusive. This is hardly unexpected, considering these events occurred three to four billion years ago, under Earth’s drastically different ancient conditions.

Justifying hypotheses with experimental data

“Over this vast period of time, evolution has thoroughly obliterated the traces that lead back to the origins of life,” says Roland Riek, Professor of Physical Chemistry and Associate Director of ETH Zurich’s new interdisciplinary Centre for Origin and Prevalence of Life. Science has no choice but to formulate hypotheses – and to substantiate them as thoroughly as possible with experimental data.

For years, Riek and his team have been pursuing the idea that protein-​like aggregates, known as amyloids, might have played an important role in the transition between chemistry and biology. Riek’s research group’s first step was to demonstrate that such amyloids can be formed relatively easily under the conditions that probably prevailed on the early Earth: in the laboratory, all it takes is a little volcanic gas (as well as experimental skill and a lot of patience) for simple amino acids to combine into short peptide chains, which then spontaneously assemble into fibers.

Precursor molecules of life

Later, Riek’s team demonstrated that amyloids can replicate themselves – which means that the molecules fulfill another decisive criterion for being considered precursor molecules of life. And now the researchers have taken the same line for a third time with their latest study, in which they show that amyloids are able to bind with molecules of both RNA and DNA.

These interactions are partly based on electrostatic attraction, since some amyloids are – at least in places – positively charged, while the genetic material carries a negative charge, at least in a neutral to acidic environment. However, Riek and his team have also noticed that the interactions also depend on the sequence of the RNA and DNA nucleotides in the genetic material. This means they might represent a kind of precursor to the universal genetic code that unites all living beings.

Increased stability as a major advantage

And yet: “Although we see differences in how the RNA and DNA molecules bind with the amyloids, we don’t yet understand what these differences mean,” Riek says. “Our model is probably still too simple.” That’s why he sees another aspect of the results as particularly important: when the genetic material attaches itself to amyloids, both molecules gain stability. In ancient times, this increased stability may have proved to be a great advantage.

This is because back then, in the so-called primordial soup, biochemical molecules were very dilute. Contrast this with today’s biological cells, within which these molecules are tightly packed together. “Amyloids have the proven potential to increase the local concentration and order of nucleotides in an otherwise dilute disordered system,” write Riek’s researchers in their recently published article.

Riek points out that although competition is central to Darwin’s theory of evolution, cooperation has also played a major evolutionary role. Both classes of molecules benefit from the stabilizing interaction between amyloids and RNA or DNA molecules because long-lived molecules accumulate more strongly over time than unstable substances. It may even be that molecular cooperation, rather than competition, was the decisive factor in the emergence of life. “After all, there was likely no shortage of space or resources back then,” Riek says.

Reference: “An Analysis of Nucleotide–Amyloid Interactions Reveals Selective Binding to Codon-Sized RNA” by Saroj K. Rout, Riccardo Cadalbert, Nina Schröder, Julia Wang, Johannes Zehnder, Olivia Gampp, Thomas Wiegand, Peter Güntert, David Klingler, Christoph Kreutz, Anna Knörlein, Jonathan Hall, Jason Greenwald and Roland Riek, 2 October 2023, Journal of the American Chemical Society.
DOI: 10.1021/jacs.3c06287

20 Comments on "The Amyloid Hypothesis: Rewriting Life’s Origin Story"

  1. Too many intrusive ads

  2. Interesting hypothesize regarding the potential emergence of the first “life forms” on Earth. If for example something started to change from growing crystal-like chain’s to part organic molecules over a time frame of, say “one and a half thousand million years” as Earths surface and water cooled, say 4 billion years ago, then there could still have been some “two thousand five hundred million years” for the emerging lifeforms to develop and mutate as necessary for survival under a multitude of ever changing challenges that has shaped the diverse lifeforms that now prevail, as well as everything that previously emerged and has since became extinct, or has changed in nature over time in order to adapt to changing circumstances.☘
    Stay safe, regards Niels

  3. Evolution has nothing to do with abiogenesis and should not be used in a discussion of the origin of life.

    Evolution is a feature of living systems.

    • What term would you prefer to use for “a process that works exactly like evolution, but on a system that is in the gray area between living and nonliving?”

      When virologists needed such a term, they came up with a clever idea: They could just say “evolution” and everyone would know exactly what they meant.

  4. The fine sound of crystal of
    The author of life
    Well that’s the answer that is true beganing and the infinite..

  5. Entropy. There, I just shot down the whole life came from nothing argument.

  6. Such big brains unable to find the answer

    • All to reach ana understand origin of life.Observe around you How children born from genetic genesEmbryodevelopment.

  7. Are these amyloids the same or related to those that cause plaque in the human brain resulting in dementia? It would be most ironic if the substances that started basic “life” are those that destroy intelligent life.

    • Lucas B. Manicaros | January 16, 2024 at 12:14 am | Reply

      AMYLOIDOSIS!? Sounds possible?
      It invades other human organs, too. My Heart is being ‘invaded’ by Amyloids radical proteins!? Life threatening?
      They do NOT know How? Why? How to Stop? Cure? Reverse?
      Can our human body reveal the environment needed for Amyloids to
      ‘Do their things?’ I’m trying several alternatives to survive their ‘occupancy’! Extreme will be prolonged Fasting.
      Start discussion group on this Amyloid activity if wanted? Via emails for starters? [email protected]

  8. Lots of stupid comments here. But I’m smart and a good boy so not this one 😄

  9. 😂😂😂😂 wow

  10. It is so ironic, how dogmatically science behaves: it is still fussing to prove an absurd idea from more than hundred year ago. Living organisms are way more complex than any tech device we daily use. And these tech devices are engineered by hundreds of engineers for decades of years. I don’t see any unorganic things created by nature any comparable to the tech what we created during the last hundred years. And the Earth had the same time for creating such things.
    What I see today is that it is way more easy to spread life in the universe instead of waiting for it to happen. This does not answer the question how it was originally created, but it multiplies the possibility of it to happen by nearly infinite. (Considering all other planets as the origin of life.) It is highly probable that you see a long bioengineering program (to spread the life here on Earth) as evolution.
    What seems true from the evolution theory is that species are adopting to their environment until they can. But a frog will never become a crocodile however much we wait. Exactly as my Samsung S23 Ultra will not become S24 ultra unless I make some conscious effort.
    English is not my mother language, so please don’t mind my not perfect sentences.

  11. Wrong answer. It had a white out explosion just like an emp when it went over Yuma Arizona 3 explosion before it hit the bary goldwater range it was from alpha centaurs region and the crew has not sent me anything since it missed my coordinates


  12. Science won’t find the answer to that, they are using the wrong equipment..

  13. Only a Living spirit can create life. Nice picture though it is much like that image in the way that it works.

    • I know you people don’t believe in it but until you do believe in it then he’ll begin to realize how it’s all possible, because life can and does exist without a biological body and that’s what creates life what seems like out of nothing but it uses all of the elements to create life from a Living spirit. It’s creating life constantly all the time you know you just can’t see it when it happens but it’s happening all of the time. Everything starts as the one cell living organism that’s the beginning of all life, but it was first a Living spirit all life was created by these non-biological things that are living spirits they live without a biological body and create life and that’s what we are and where we will all go when we die with all of the other living spirits. That’s why you’ll never be able to create life out of nothing only a Living spirit can do that and create life it’s beginning of all life. It will redefine even the word Life as we know it because right now people believe life is biological but life is not all biological.

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