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From Chemical Soup to Life’s Blueprint: Scientists Unearth Vital Component

Artist's impression of an exoplanet. NASA wants us to prepare for the potential discovery of alien life. Credit: IAU/L. Calçada

A team of scientists at Rutgers University has made a groundbreaking discovery in the search for the origins of life. They have identified a substance that could have played a pivotal role in sparking the emergence of life on Earth. This finding has exciting implications for astrobiology, the study of life in the universe, and could help us unlock the mysteries of life's beginnings.

At Rutgers University, a team of researchers is dedicated to unraveling the origins of metabolism – the basic chemical reactions that were crucial for the emergence of life on Earth. They have recently made a discovery that could help scientists detect planets that are on the brink of becoming inhabited. Specifically, they have identified a portion of a protein that might serve as a valuable marker for identifying such planets.

The findings, which have been published in the journal Science Advances, carry significant implications for the quest to find life beyond our planet. According to Vikas Nanda, a scientist at Rutgers’ Center for Advanced Biotechnology and Medicine (CABM), the discovery provides scientists with a fresh avenue of investigation, enabling them to search for signs of extraterrestrial life using a novel approach.


After conducting laboratory experiments, scientists from Rutgers have identified a simple peptide consisting of two nickel atoms, which they have named “Nickelback” due to the nitrogen atoms on its backbone bonding with the critical nickel atoms. Although the name is coincidentally similar to that of a popular rock band, it has no relation to it, although I am sure Nckeback – the band – could come up with a hit song for the peptide. This peptide is considered one of the most probable candidates for initiating life, as it comprises fundamental amino acids that make up proteins.

“Scientists believe that sometime between 3.5 and 3.8 billion years ago there was a tipping point, something that kickstarted the change from prebiotic chemistry – molecules before life – to­ living, biological systems,” said Nanda, a professor of biochemistry and molecular biology at Robert Wood Johnson Medical School. “We believe the change was sparked by a few small precursor proteins that performed key steps in an ancient metabolic reaction. And we think we’ve found one of these ‘pioneer peptides.’”


The researchers leading this study are affiliated with ENIGMA (Evolution of Nanomachines in Geospheres and Microbial Ancestors), a team at Rutgers that is part of NASA’s Astrobiology Program. Their objective is to gain insights into the evolutionary trajectory of proteins and how they emerged as the primary catalysts for life on our planet.

In the quest to discover evidence of life beyond Earth, NASA scientists employ various telescopes and probes to scan the universe for signs of potential past, present, or future life. They seek out specific “biosignatures,” which are known indicators of life. According to Nanda, peptides such as Nickelback could be a novel biosignature that NASA scientists could use to detect planets that are on the verge of harboring life.

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