J. Phys. IV France
Volume 107, May 2003
Page(s) 969 - 974

J. Phys. IV France
107 (2003) 969
DOI: 10.1051/jp4:20030460

Heavy metals and the origin of life

J. Nriagu

Department of Environmental Health Sciences, School of Public Health, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, MI 48109, U.S.A.

The functional value of heavy metals in proto-cells was immense and involved critical roles in catalysis of molecular synthesis, translation, electrical neutrality and conduction, energy capture, cross-linking and precipitation (stabilizers of protective cell walls), and to a limited extent, osmotic pressure control. Metals must have modulated the evolutionary choices of the types of building blocks, such as ribose sugars as a constituent of RNA, or the the chirality and enantiopurity of many biomolecules. The formation of an enclosing membrane led to intracellular prokaryotic life (believed to have originated in an anaerobic environment) and much enhanced control over primary metabolism, the uptake and incorporation of heavy metals and the management of biomolecules (especially RNA, DNA and proteins) that were formed. Cells of the most primitive organisms (archaebacteria) reveal complex mechanisms designed specifically to deal with selective pressures from metal-containing environments including intra- and extra-cellular sequestration, exclusion by cell wall barrier, removal through active efflux pumps, enzymatic detoxification, and reduction in sensitivity of cellular targets to metal ions. Adaptation to metals using a variety of chromosomal, and transposon and plasmid-mediated systems began early in the evolution of life on Earth. Recent studies, however, show that the roles played by many heavy metals have changed over time. Divalent lead, for instance, has relinquished its unique catalytic role in the conversion of carbohydrates into ribose in the prebiotic world. The putative elements that dominated the primordial biochemistry were V, Mo, W, Co, Fe(II) and Ni; with the development of oxygenated atmosphere, these elements gave way to Zn, Cu and Fe(Ill) in their metabolic functions.

© EDP Sciences 2003