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Were protocells basic abiogenic ancestral magnetosomes that evolved through natural selection into more complex life?

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Abstract

Magnetoreception is not restricted to prokaryotic bacteria but also occurs in eukaryotic organisms including fish and mammals, intimating that it developed at an early stage in the evolution of all living things.3 Speculating on the earliest of geological times, what if magnetism not only evolved in some universal common ancestor (LUCA) but was itself the only reason the very first protocells formed, transmuting through natural selection from the abiotic to life?1 This piece explores the possibility that magnetism is crucial for the self-organization of abiotic protocells into living matter.
Were protocells basic abiogenic ancestral magnetosomes that evolved
through natural selection into more complex life?1
Until very recently, traditional mainstream textbook thinking on the difference between
eukaryotes and prokaryotes has been wrong. Eukaryotes have been as a rule described as
containing compartmentalised subcellular membrane bound organelles that carry out specific
functions and in contrast prokaryotes as not having any type of organelles. In the last couple
of decades though it has been discovered that prokaryotes do indeed have their own membrane
bound organelles, though unlike eukaryotes, different types of prokaryotes have different
organelle specialisations.2 Some of these organelles are called magnetosomes. Magnetosomes
are bilayer lipid membrane bound bacterial organelles that synthesize iron rich magnetic
particles.3 Bacteria use their magnetosomes for magnetoreception which provides a sense of
direction to navigate in their environments, journeying from one place to another that best suits
them. Magnetoreception is not restricted to prokaryotic bacteria but also occurs in eukaryotic
organisms including fish and mammals, intimating that it developed at an early stage in the
evolution of all living things.3 Speculating on the earliest of geological times, what if
magnetism not only evolved in some universal common ancestor (LUCA) but was itself the
only reason the very first protocells formed, transmuting through natural selection from the
abiotic to life?1 This piece explores the possibility that magnetism is crucial for the self-
organisation of abiotic protocells into living matter.
Planet Earth is circumferentially enveloped by an enormous magnetic field extending into outer
space beyond our atmosphere.4 Earth’s magnetic field emerges from its very interior, generated
by electric currents which are themselves formed by the convection currents of predominantly
swirling amalgamated molten iron and nickel in its inner outer core. The Earths also metallic
solid inner core energises the convection currents by radiating heat around it and is an example
of a naturally occurring dynamo.5 This so called geodynamo creates a more habitable
environment for life as it shields the Earth from otherwise detrimental solar wind and cosmic
radiation. However, the Earth was not a geodynamo for the entirety of time elapsed since its
initial formation from a protoplanetary disc around 4600 Ma to the present. The geomagnetic
field is thought to have come into being around 3450 Ma6 but since the formation of planet
Earth there may though have been a magnetic field just as powerful as in the present, formed
in combination with the Moon.7 The Moon then was twice as close as it is now and together
with the Earth could have maintained a common magnetosphere. When the Moon’s magnetism
waned, the Earth’s own geodynamo was waxing just in time to provide a continued haven for
its surface life. There are other possible sources for magnetism on the early Earth not produced
by its geodynamo or in combination with the young Moon. Large metallic asteroids that
formed in the same protoplanetary disc as the Earth, took part in the Late Heavy Bombardment
in the young Solar system and would have strewn largely pre-magnetised metallic materials on
the Earth’s surface.8 Another mechanism for the prolonged indirect magnetization of metallic
materials on the surface would have been volcanism. Volcanism on the early Earth is thought
to have been more prevalent by a much wider margin.9 Initially Earth was covered by a magma
ocean which over millions of years started to form a crust as it cooled.10 The contemporary
marked distinction we draw between discrete volcanos, terrestrial hot spring geysers, shallow
and deep-sea vents would not have existed then, rather it would have been a gradual continuum
of common volcanic geothermal events. Water would have been ubiquitous and even though
initially the temperature would have by far exceeded boiling point, the much heavier
atmosphere kept a lot of it liquid. Lodestones are naturally occurring magnets made from the
mineral magnetite.11 It is thought that they are created by the strong magnetic fields that are
produced by lightning bolts which is supported by their preponderance on surface terrain, not
underground.12 Volcanos produce volcanic lighting from the static electricity formed by
colliding ash particles from eruptions.13 As volcanoes were incomparably more numerous in
the early Earth so would have been magnetic lodestones because of the prevalent amounts of
iron. Lighting strikes to the ground alternatively originating from normal water droplet clouds
would have also been far greater in number when our home star, the Sun, was young. Young
stars as a rule have a much stronger magnetic field than after aging14 and the amount of cloud
lighting we get on Earth increases when the naturally fluctuating magnetic field of the Sun also
increases.15 So there are a few plausible scenarios for a prevalence of substantial magnetism
on the early Earth at a micro and macro scale, and if simultaneously occurring this would have
had a combined increased magnetic effect at some locality where water in some form
coincided.
If for life to spark off from the non-living, the existence of a long term environmental magnetic
field is necessary, from the latter we can gauge this appears to have been present in the nascent
Earth in more than one form. Is there any evidence that the blind endogenous orientation of
abiotically produced organic molecules within a membrane can be induced by an
environmental magnetic field? Artificial cell membranes have already been created using
magnetism which in chemical constituents are exactly alike that of the biological membranes
of extant organisms.16 Magnetophoresis is the physical process where induced particles migrate
in a magnetic field and this has successfully been experimented upon to create artificial cell
membranes in aqueous droplets in oil that come close to the functionality of cellular
membranes.17 Organic materials in general have varying paltry attributes in how they are
affected by magnetism and in magnetophorensis must be permeated with chemicals that are
magnetically susceptible so that there is a response to an external magnetic field. When that is
done in an experiment and a magnetic field is applied to the whole thing, a cell membrane
structure forms which retains that structure once the magnetic field is removed. Would
something like that in a primordial organic soup in some simultaneously ferrous and aqueous
environment on the early planet Earth have been possible? “Compartmentalization of primitive
biochemical reactions within membrane-bound water micro-droplets is considered an essential
step in the origin of life.18 Protocells as basic magnetosomes undergoing internal
magnetopheresis could have resulted in spatial organization and molecular crowding, as self-
assembling lipid vesicles.18 In the origins of life, clays suffused with a lot of iron could have
carried out light induced light charge channelling that reduced carbon dioxide to operational
organic molecules.18 Clay materials are known to produce polynucleotides which are the basic
structural units for DNA, the stuff that replicates its own genetic information from one
generation to the next.18 Phosphorus is the backbone of DNA and RNA and there was a copious
amount of this phosphorus on the early Earth but it was locked in a non-reactive state and
insoluble in water so chemically inaccessible to any potential life that might need to make use
of it to build protogenomes.19 It is known that lighting striking clays that contain mineral
phosphorus in a locked form transmutes it into a type that is soluble therefore accessible to life
and as already mentioned lightning is thought to have abounded on the early Earth.
Was the early Earth the equivalent of a large-scale Miller-Urey experiment13 where
environmental magnetism, possibly from more than one source, was the predominant factor in
organising freely available chemical gardens into self-contained cellular units with a
membrane? Volcanic/cloud lighting, could have both induced magnetism in magnetite
minerals, also simultaneously releasing soluble phosphorus for DNA production. If so, was
paramagnetic and/or diamagnetic20 magnetophoresis alignment involved in protocell division
and reproduction of daughter cells, though natural selection eventually did away with a need
for a magnetic scaffold? If cells came first, having evolved from protocells that were basic
ancestral magnetosomes, did all viruses in general evolve after that as a relic of exosome
horizontal gene transfer, and would that mean that RNA viruses specifically are an exaptation
of transcription? There is evidence that might answer the latter in the form of extracellular
vesicles.21 These are free floating membrane bound molecular information particles that are
released by individual cells and from which other cells can read and gather information from.
There is an extraordinarily strong resemblance between these vesicles and viruses, and it has
been proposed that this resemblance is not coincidental. Viruses can replicate whilst vesicles
cannot but there are many variations in between that do not follow those two diametrically
differentiated categories. Both viruses and vesicles use information to communicate with other
cells though, and in specialist scientific circles there is still no consensus as to which one of
them developed that trait first. Bacteria also engage in exchanging information using
extracellular vesicles so this trait might well be billions of years old. Did aggregations of
ancestral protocell magnetosomes paramagnetically aligned in their magnetic environment
exchange molecular particles which further ensured their existence?
Even if magnetism were essential for abiogenesis on planet Earth, not only because of the
protection afforded by the magnetosphere if abiotic origins were on the surface, it would still
be good scientific practice not to preclude abiogenesis occurring by some other means.18 In a
relatively infinite Multiverse22 are there an infinite amount of ways life can occur or is the
complexity required for life a constraining factor in its formation? Water is quite common
around this Universe so if life depends on it to exist here on Earth, it might just do so in many
other places.23 We should hope one day to experimentally be able to create life out of abiotic
compounds and perhaps this shall be possible using magnetism. Further afield than planet
Earth, when looking for signs of life having existed on planet Mars, we should consider its own
magnetic past at a micro and macro scale as a contributing or precluding factor. Outside of our
solar system all the different forms of magnetic production histories of other star systems
should be included in the range of biosignature detection targets. We may find that one day
we have found other life in this universe just by first detecting an exoplanet water world’s
magnetosphere.
References
1) Thompson, E. (2020), Chemical-shuttling bacteria follow Earth’s magnetic field, Eos,
101, https://doi.org/10.1029/2020EO152294. Published on 04 December 2020. This is the article from which I first got the idea
that the first protocells might have been magnetosomes as can be seen included in the comments section at
https://eos.org/research-spotlights/chemical-shuttling-bacteria-follow-earths-magnetic-field
2) Cepelewicz, J. 2019. Quanta Magazine. Bacterial Complexity Revises Ideas About “Which Came First”
https://www.quantamagazine.org/bacterial-organelles-revise-ideas-about-which-came-first-20190612/
3) Wei Lin, Joseph L Kirschvink, Greig A Paterson, Dennis A Bazylinski, Yongxin Pan, On the origin of microbial
magnetoreception, National Science Review, Volume 7, Issue 2, February 2020, Pages 472
479, https://doi.org/10.1093/nsr/nwz065
4) NASA ScienceCasts: Earth's Magnetosphere https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o4FSg-90XlA&t=2s
5) Glatzmaier, G. A. The Geodynamo https://websites.pmc.ucsc.edu/~glatz/geodynamo.html
6) Geodynamo, Solar Wind, and Magnetopause 3.4 to 3.45 Billion Years Ago
https://science.sciencemag.org/content/327/5970/1238.full
7) Callaghan, J. 2020. Newscientist. The moon had a magnetic field that helped protect the Earth’s atmosphere.
https://www.newscientist.com/article/2257286-the-moon-had-a-magnetic-field-that-helped-protect-earths-atmosphere/
8) Wall, M. 2015. Newscientist. Magnetic Fields of Asteroids Lasted Hundreds of Millions of Years https://www.space.com/28319-
asteroid-magnetic-fields-earth-core.html
9) Volcanic emissions and the early Earth atmosphere https://pages.mtu.edu/~nurban/classes/ce5508/2008/Readings/Martin07.pdf
10) Sleep NH, Zahnle K, Neuhoff PS. Initiation of clement surface conditions on the earliest Earth. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A.
2001;98(7):3666-3672. doi:10.1073/pnas.071045698 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC31109/
11) History of Lodestone. https://www.apexmagnets.com/news-how-tos/the-first-discovery-of-magnetism-lodestone/
12) Hambling, D. 2011. The Guardian newpaper. How does magnetite become magnetised?
https://www.theguardian.com/news/2011/apr/28/weatherwatch-lodestone-minerals-magnetism-magnetite-lightning
13) Atkinson, N. 2008. Universe Today. Did Lighting and Volcanoes Spark Life on Earth?
https://www.universetoday.com/19889/did-lightning-and-volcanoes-spark-life-on-earth/ . I could have easily obtained the
reference from other sources freely available, but I would not have ever conceived of this piece or its title in any detail had it not
been for Fraser Cain, who runs Universe Today, posting reference 1 on Twitter
https://twitter.com/fcain/status/1334906822399053830
14) The evolution of surface magnetic fields in young solar-type stars II: The early main sequence (250-650 Myr)
arXiv:1711.08636v1 [astro-ph.SR]
15) Ravillious, K. 2014. Physics World. Sun’s Magnetic Field affects frequency of lighting strikes on Earth.
https://physicsworld.com/a/suns-magnetic-field-affects-frequency-of-lightning-strikes-on-earth/
16) Li, Q., Li, S., Zhang, X. et al. Programmed magnetic manipulation of vesicles into spatially coded proto tissue architectures
arrays. Nat Commun 11, 232 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41467-019-14141-x
17) Michelle Makhoul-Mansour, Wujun Zhao, Nicole Gay, Colleen O’Connor, Joseph S. Najem, Leidong Mao, and Eric C.
Freeman. Langmuir 2017 33 (45), 13000-13007. https://magnet.engr.uga.edu/wp-
content/uploads/2017/11/acs.langmuir.7b03055.pdf
18) Bartlett, S.; Wong, M.L. Defining Lyfe in the Universe: From Three Privileged Functions to Four Pillars. Life 2020, 10, 42.
https://doi.org/10.3390/life10040042 . Stuart Bartlett whom I met during the 2021 Earth Life Science Institute symposium,
Science in Society, encouraged me to continue along the path of investigating whether protocells were basic magnetosomes after
explaining my theory to him. I am indebted to him in pointing me in the right direction as he forwarded me information on an
author whom I was able to track to a paper on Google which though did not broach my theory, but took me remarkably close to
it. On it, magnetism is proposed took part in the evolution of magnetosomes in the earliest life but only as an exaptation of the
detrimental effect of ferric ions on intracellular reactive oxygen species, not as a possible agency in life organising itself from an
abiotic environment. The paper is entitled On the origin of microbial magnetoreception and can be seen at, Wei Lin, Joseph L
Kirschvink, Greig A Paterson, Dennis A Bazylinski, Yongxin Pan, On the origin of microbial magnetoreception, National
Science Review, Volume 7, Issue 2, February 2020, Pages 472479, https://doi.org/10.1093/nsr/nwz065
https://academic.oup.com/nsr/article/7/2/472/5493124
19) Hess, B.L., Piazolo, S. & Harvey, J. Lightning strikes as a major facilitator of prebiotic phosphorus reduction on early
Earth. Nat Commun 12, 1535 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41467-021-21849-2
20) Classification of Magnetic Materials http://www.brainkart.com/article/Properties-of-diamagnetic,-paramagnetic,-ferromagnetic-
substances_3214/
21) Arnold, C. Quanta Magazine. Cells Talk in a Language That look Like Viruses. https://www.quantamagazine.org/cells-talk-in-a-
language-that-looks-like-viruses-20180502/
22) Planet, A Did spacetime exist before the Big Bang and if so, is this Universe crunching into another universe within a Multiverse
that as a whole obeys the same periodicity of chemistry plus laws of physics?
https://www.researchgate.net/publication/348716690_Did_spacetime_exist_before_the_Big_Bang_and_if_so_is_this_Universe_
crunching_into_another_universe_within_a_Multiverse_that_as_a_whole_obeys_the_same_periodicity_of_chemistry_plus_laws
_of_physics
23) Tomaswick, A. Universe Today. Oh, the Irony. There are Likely Water Worlds Everywhere, but They’re Covered in ice and
Impossible to Investigate. https://www.universetoday.com/150633/oh-the-irony-there-are-likely-water-worlds-everywhere-but-
theyre-covered-in-ice-and-impossible-to-investigate/
ResearchGate has not been able to resolve any citations for this publication.
Full-text available
Article
When hydrated, phosphides such as the mineral schreibersite, (Fe,Ni)3P, allow for the synthesis of important phosphorus-bearing organic compounds. Such phosphides are common accessory minerals in meteorites; consequently, meteorites are proposed to be a main source of prebiotic reactive phosphorus on early Earth. Here, we propose an alternative source for widespread phosphorus reduction, arguing that lightning strikes on early Earth potentially formed 10–1000 kg of phosphide and 100–10,000 kg of phosphite and hypophosphite annually. Therefore, lightning could have been a significant source of prebiotic, reactive phosphorus which would have been concentrated on landmasses in tropical regions. Lightning strikes could likewise provide a continual source of prebiotic reactive phosphorus independent of meteorite flux on other Earth-like planets, potentially facilitating the emergence of terrestrial life indefinitely.
Full-text available
Article
A broad range of organisms, from prokaryotes to higher animals, have the ability to sense and utilize Earth's geomagnetic field—a behavior known as magnetoreception. Although our knowledge of the physiological mechanisms of magnetoreception has increased substantially over recent decades, the origin of this behavior remains a fundamental question in evolutionary biology. Despite this, there is growing evidence that magnetic iron mineral biosynthesis by prokaryotes may represent the earliest form of biogenic magnetic sensors on Earth. Here, we integrate new data from microbiology, geology and nanotechnology, and propose that initial biomineralization of intracellular iron nanoparticles in early life evolved as a mechanism for mitigating the toxicity of reactive oxygen species (ROS), as ultraviolet radiation and free-iron-generated ROS would have been a major environmental challenge for life on early Earth. This iron-based system could have later been co-opted as a magnetic sensor for magnetoreception in microorganisms, suggesting an origin of microbial magnetoreception as the result of the evolutionary process of exaptation.
Full-text available
Article
In nature, cells self-assemble into spatially coded tissular configurations to execute higher-order biological functions as a collective. This mechanism has stimulated the recent trend in synthetic biology to construct tissue-like assemblies from protocell entities, with the aim to understand the evolution mechanism of multicellular mechanisms, create smart materials or devices, and engineer tissue-like biomedical implant. However, the formation of spatially coded and communicating micro-architectures from large quantity of protocell entities, especially for lipid vesicle-based systems that mostly resemble cells, is still challenging. Herein, we magnetically assemble giant unilamellar vesicles (GUVs) or cells into various microstructures with spatially coded configurations and spatialized cascade biochemical reactions using a stainless steel mesh. GUVs in these tissue-like aggregates exhibit uncustomary osmotic stability that cannot be achieved by individual GUVs suspensions. This work provides a versatile and cost-effective strategy to form robust tissue-mimics and indicates a possible superiority of protocell colonies to individual protocells. To execute higher-order functions, cells self-assemble into spatially coded tissue configurations. Here the authors magnetically assembly giant unilamellar vesicles into three dimensional tissue-mimic structures with collective osmotic stability.
Full-text available
Article
In the beginning the surface of the Earth was extremely hot, because the Earth as we know it is the product of a collision between two planets, a collision that also created the Moon. Most of the heat within the very young Earth was lost quickly to space while the surface was still quite hot. As it cooled, the Earth's surface passed monotonically through every temperature regime between silicate vapor to liquid water and perhaps even to ice, eventually reaching an equilibrium with sunlight. Inevitably the surface passed through a time when the temperature was around 100 degrees C at which modern thermophile organisms live. How long this warm epoch lasted depends on how long a thick greenhouse atmosphere can be maintained by heat flow from the Earth's interior, either directly as a supplement to insolation, or indirectly through its influence on the nascent carbonate cycle. In both cases, the duration of the warm epoch would have been controlled by processes within the Earth's interior where buffering by surface conditions played little part. A potentially evolutionarily significant warm period of between 10(5) and 10(7) years seems likely, which nonetheless was brief compared to the vast expanse of geological time.
Article
Magnetotactic bacteria shunt sulfur, nitrogen, and other important elements between oxygen-poor and oxygen-rich waters.
Quanta Magazine. Bacterial Complexity Revises Ideas About
  • J Cepelewicz
Cepelewicz, J. 2019. Quanta Magazine. Bacterial Complexity Revises Ideas About "Which Came First" https://www.quantamagazine.org/bacterial-organelles-revise-ideas-about-which-came-first-20190612/
Newscientist. The moon had a magnetic field that helped protect the Earth's atmosphere
  • J Callaghan
Callaghan, J. 2020. Newscientist. The moon had a magnetic field that helped protect the Earth's atmosphere. https://www.newscientist.com/article/2257286-the-moon-had-a-magnetic-field-that-helped-protect-earths-atmosphere/
The Guardian newpaper. How does magnetite become magnetised?
  • D Hambling
Hambling, D. 2011. The Guardian newpaper. How does magnetite become magnetised? https://www.theguardian.com/news/2011/apr/28/weatherwatch-lodestone-minerals-magnetism-magnetite-lightning
have easily obtained the reference from other sources freely available, but I would not have ever conceived of this piece or its title in any detail had it not been for Fraser Cain, who runs Universe Today
  • N Atkinson
Atkinson, N. 2008. Universe Today. Did Lighting and Volcanoes Spark Life on Earth? https://www.universetoday.com/19889/did-lightning-and-volcanoes-spark-life-on-earth/. I could have easily obtained the reference from other sources freely available, but I would not have ever conceived of this piece or its title in any detail had it not been for Fraser Cain, who runs Universe Today, posting reference 1 on Twitter https://twitter.com/fcain/status/1334906822399053830
The evolution of surface magnetic fields in young solar-type stars II: The early main sequence
The evolution of surface magnetic fields in young solar-type stars II: The early main sequence (250-650 Myr) arXiv:1711.08636v1 [astro-ph.SR]