Iron catalysis at the origin of life

Camprubi Casas, Eloi; Jordan, Sean; Vasiliadou, Rafaela and Lane, Nick (2017). Iron catalysis at the origin of life. International Union of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology Life, 69(6) pp. 373–381.



Iron–sulphur proteins are ancient and drive fundamental processes in cells, notably electron transfer and CO2 fixation. Iron–sulphur minerals with equivalent structures could have played a key role in the origin of life. However, the ‘iron–sulphur world’ hypothesis has had a mixed reception, with questions raised especially about the feasibility of a pyrites-pulled reverse Krebs cycle. Phylogenetics suggests that the earliest cells drove carbon and energy metabolism via the acetyl CoA pathway, which is also replete in Fe(Ni)S proteins. Deep differences between bacteria and archaea in this pathway obscure the ancestral state. These differences make sense if early cells depended on natural proton gradients in alkaline hydrothermal vents. If so, the acetyl CoA pathway diverged with the origins of active ion pumping, and ancestral CO2 fixation might have been equivalent to methanogens, which depend on a membrane-bound NiFe hydrogenase, energy converting hydrogenase. This uses the proton-motive force to reduce ferredoxin, thence CO2. The mechanism suggests that pH could modulate reduction potential at the active site of the enzyme, facilitating the difficult reduction of CO2 by H2. This mechanism could be generalised under abiotic conditions so that steep pH differences across semi-conducting Fe(Ni)S barriers drives not just the first steps of CO2 fixation to C1 and C2 organics such as CO, CH3SH and CH3COSH, but a series of similar carbonylation and hydrogenation reactions to form longer chain carboxylic acids such as pyruvate, oxaloacetate and α-ketoglutarate, as in the incomplete reverse Krebs cycle found in methanogens. We suggest that the closure of a complete reverse Krebs cycle, by regenerating acetyl CoA directly, displaced the acetyl CoA pathway from many modern groups. A later reliance on acetyl CoA and ATP eliminated the need for the proton-motive force to drive most steps of the reverse Krebs cycle.

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