Dan Luo, professor of biological and environmental engineering and a member of the Kavli Institute at Cornell for Nanoscale Science, said that they propose that in early geological history clay hydrogel provided a confinement function for biomolecules and biochemical reactions.
In simulated ancient seawater, clay forms a hydrogel - a mass of microscopic spaces capable of soaking up liquids like a sponge.
Over billions of years, chemicals confined in those spaces could have carried out the complex reactions that formed proteins, DNA and eventually all the machinery that makes a living cell work.
Clay hydrogels could have confined and protected those chemical processes until the membrane that surrounds living cells developed.
To further test the idea, the Luo group has demonstrated protein synthesis in a clay hydrogel. The researchers previously used synthetic hydrogels as a "cell-free" medium for protein production.
Fill the spongy material with DNA, amino acids, the right enzymes and a few bits of cellular machinery and you can make the proteins for which the DNA encodes, just as you might in a vat of cells.
To make the process useful for producing large quantities of proteins, as in drug manufacturing, you need a lot of hydrogel, so the researchers set out to find a cheaper way to make it.
Postdoctoral researcher Dayong Yang noticed that clay formed a hydrogel.
But then it occurred to the researchers that what they had discovered might answer a long-standing question about how biomolecules evolved.
The study has been published online in journal Scientific Reports.
--ANI (Posted on 06-11-2013)