Unraveling the ENIGMA of Protein Evolution

The Evolution of Nanomachines in Geospheres and Microbial Ancestors (ENIGMA) project has received a $6 million grant from the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) to investigate how Earth’s chemistry and geology enabled proteins to evolve.

Proteins are finely tuned, specialized “nanomachines” that catalyze necessary chemical reactions in all organisms on Earth. Though scientists don’t yet understand how these efficient machines first began, they likely had humble beginnings amidst geochemical reactions, and evolved into ever more complex configurations.

Those humble beginnings are the focus of a new project entitled ENIGMA, Evolution of Nanomachines in Geospheres and Microbial Ancestors. Researchers involved with the project seek to understand how proteins originated and evolved through deep time, and whether similar instances of biochemistry emerging from geochemistry could have occurred on other planetary bodies. They have received a five-year, $6 million-grant from NASA and membership in the NASA Astrobiology Institute. Paul Falkowski (Rutgers University, USA) leads the project, which includes DCO members Robert Hazen, Shaunna Morrison, Joy Buongiorno (all at Carnegie Institution for Science, USA), and Donato Giovannelli (University of Naples Federico II, Italy). 

“We are looking at the evolution of life from a very strongly geochemical and carbon chemistry perspective,” said Hazen. In other words, “How does the chemistry of rocks and minerals in a geological environment somehow trigger the beginning of life?” 

Mineral proteins
At the heart of many proteins are metals commonly found in minerals, which help the proteins to catalyze chemical reactions that are vital for life. Credit: ENIGMA

To attempt to answer this question, ENIGMA has three research themes. The first, led by Vikas Nanda (Rutgers University, USA) is stripping down proteins to their most critical, primitive parts, to find the smallest components necessary to accomplish a chemical task. Yana Bromberg (Rutgers University, USA) heads up the second group, which is tracking protein functions across Earth’s history to understand when different proteins came into existence and how they diversified over billions of years. Finally, the third group, led by Hazen and Nathan Yee (Rutgers University, USA), is looking at different minerals to understand how the chemistry of mineral surfaces could trigger biochemical reactions that may have jumpstarted life.

“This has tremendous resonance with the DCO,” said Hazen. “We’re trying to understand aspects of Deep Life and how it came to be and how it evolved.” He sees the project as a direct outgrowth of DCO’s efforts to link geology and biology, such as the Biology Meets Subduction project, and research into how minerals and the carbon cycle have impacted the evolution and limits of life.

“It’s a great group of people,” said Hazen, “and the project simply wouldn’t have happened without the DCO.”

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