Bringing us into being

Roman Zubarev is a professor of proteomics at Karolinska Institutet. Together with and colleagues, he have discovered the optimum recipe for the start of life.

Roman Zubarev. Photo: Mattias Ahlm

Text: Annika Lund, first published in the magazine Medical Science 2016.

Your group is researching the origin of life. How are you doing that?

“We have been researching the influence of different isotopes on living cells. Isotopes are slightly heavier or lighter versions of the same atoms, but have a different number of neutrons in the atomic nucleus. We cultivated E. coli bacteria and systematically changed the isotopic composition of carbon, nitrogen, oxygen and hydrogen in the solution that the bacteria were growing in. When we mixed the isotopes in a particular way, the bacteria started to grow more quickly. That was the point at which we achieved what we are calling isotopic resonance. It is a condition that is to do with how the average weights of the atoms relate to each other in accordance with a special calculation model. There is a bit of numerical magic here – the calculation must end in a whole number. Roughly speaking, there is then a lower level of chemical complexity that speeds up the biochemical process.

I see. And what does the best recipe look like?

“For carbon, 9.54 per cent must be of isotope 13C; 10.89 per cent of nitrogen must be of isotope 15N, and 6.6 per cent of oxygen must be of isotope 18O. That results in what we call super resonance – the perfect conditions for biochemical processes which can then work much more quickly.

Were these conditions in place on the earth when life began?

“No, we have never had that isotopic composition. That means we don’t have the perfect conditions for life on earth. But we are still in a good position compared to other planets in the solar system because we do have conditions that are good enough. Here, life was able to emerge relatively quickly, even if it took a billion years for it to happen. Super resonance would have made it happen more quickly.”

What sort of reactions are you getting to your research?

“Many of our colleagues are surprised and think that this is an unexpected new area of research. The bit of numerical magic is seen as pretty amazing and difficult to take in, but that part of our research is statistically highly significant. Some people with religious beliefs might see this line of thinking as proof that we were meant to be here on earth, that there is a god with a plan for our planet. I’m agnostic myself and have an open mind. But I would perhaps have thought that if a god had created the earth, we would have had super resonance, i.e. the perfect conditions for life.

How can we use this knowledge?

“There are lots of areas where it can be used. In medicine, for example, it might be useful in cancer treatment, where by making the composition of isotopes less favourable for biochemical processes we ought to be able to slow down the growth rate of tumours. In the food industry, on the other hand, improved conditions might make food grow more quickly. I think we are at the start of a new branch of knowledge that could be very useful to us.”

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