Archives or Palimpsests? Bacterial Genomes Unveil a Scenario for the Origin of Life

Biological Theory 2 (1):52-61 (2007)
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Abstract

The three processes needed to create life, compartmentalization, metabolism, and information transfer (memory stored in nucleic acids and manipulation operated by proteins) are embedded in organized genome features. The core of life puts together growth and maintenance (which drives survival), while life in context explores and exploits specific niches. Analysis of gene persistence in a large number of genomes shows that the former constitutes the paleome, which recapitulates the three phases of the origin of life: metabolism of small molecules on surfaces, substitution of surfaces by an RNA-world where transfer RNA played a central role, and invention of template mediated information transfer. Colonization of each niche is performed using an almost unlimited set of genes, forming the cenome. The agreement of the paleome structure with a consistent scenario for the origin of life is such that we may consider extant genomes as providing us with an archive of the origin rather than as a palimpsest where most of our past would be irremediably hidden.

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Antoine Danchin
University of Hong Kong

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