2004 Annual Science Report

Carnegie Institution of Washington Reporting  |  JUL 2003 – JUN 2004

Prebiotic Chemical and Isotopic Evolution on Earth

Project Summary

Sulfur fractionated by enzymatic catalysis has been harvested in the laboratory from living cultures of sulfur-metabolizing microbes and analyzed for 32S-33S-34S.

4 Institutions
3 Teams
0 Publications
0 Field Sites
Field Sites

Project Progress

  1. Unravelling Earth’s Sulfur Cycle

    Sulfur fractionated by enzymatic catalysis has been harvested in the laboratory from living cultures of sulfur-metabolizing microbes and analyzed for 32S-33S-34S. The species Archhaeoglobus fulgidus, Desulfovibrio gigas, Thermodesulfovibrio yellowstonii, Desulfobacter hydrogenophilius, D. jorgensenii, D. autotrophicum, D. thiozymogenes, D. sulfodismutans, and a culture of sulfur disproportionators from Gulfo Dulce, Costa Rica, all have mass-dependent sulfur isotope fractionations. A model that describes the mass-dependent sulfur isotope fractionations for sulfate reducers and sulfur disproportionators has been developed. In that model, as has been demonstrated in studies of oxygen isotope fractionation, mass dependent reactions transfer non-mass dependent signatures from reactants to products, albeit diminished in magnitude by dilution. Microbes may have played an important dual role in both preserving but also diluting anomalous sulfur isotope fractionations. As an agent of preservation, microbial enzymatic catalysis precipitates pyrite, a secure storage site for sulfur isotopes, but as an inhibitor, the full magnitude of isotope anomalies may not be preserved because of dilution.

    Applying these ideas to sulfur isotope measurements on single pyrite grains from a single bed of 3.5-Ga chert from the North Pole district, Western Australia (Figure 1), indicates behavior expected from the microbial metabolism of sulfur. The North Pole microbes accepted ambient sulfur with a non-mass dependent fractionation of 33S, metabolized it mass dependently, and left behind a linear array of δ33S versus δ34S values offset from bulk Earth by -0.3 per mil in Δ33S.

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  2. The Critical Role of Sulfur in Prebiotic (Protometabolic) Organic Chemistry

    Over the past year Co-Investigator Cody and his colleagues have been focusing on a potentially important set of prebiotic reactions. Following up on their earlier work with hydrothermal reactions with citric acid they began exploring similar chemistry in the presence of NH3-NH4+ and in the presence of transition metal sulfides. They previously demonstrated that metal sulfide catalyzed reactions could provide a source of citric acid under reduced hydrothermal conditions. Citric acid is a useful source of alpha-keto acids (oxalacete and pyruvate) via reaction path α (Figure 2). The natural question arises as to whether one can convert these alpha-keto acids to their respective amino acids (aspartate and alanine) via a meta-sulfide-catalyzed reductive amination. The use of heterocatalysis (i.e., surface catalysis) offers the tantalizing possibility that regioselective reduction of the imine intermediate might be topologically controlled on the mineral surface and lead to enantiomeric excesses.

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    The team has been extensively exploring a range of reaction conditions that might be favorable for the transformation of citric acid to aspartate and alanine. They have found that alanine synthesis is highly favorable, but aspartate synthesis is not. Evidently the rate of decomposition of oxalacetate to pyruvate occurs too rapidly to favor reductive amination. They have found only one set of conditions that produce trace quantities of aspartate. These difficulties aside, they discovered other reactions that were unanticipated and may be of importance to prebiotic chemistry. Toward this end they are now refining their understanding of the reaction space through numerous (hundreds to date) experiments of varying T, P, and composition.

    In addition to these experiments they completed the synthesis of 34S-labeled metal sulfides to explore the extent of sulfur exchange accompanying hydrothermal reactions with alkyl thiols. In particular they are focusing on the metal-sulfide-promoted synthesis of citric acid, wherein a number of thiol intermediates form via a redox reaction with the metal sulfide. Cody and colleagues intend to explore further metal-sulfide-catalyzed reductive amination reactions, and they are particularly interested in identifying metal sulfide phases that will promote this reaction at lower temperatures. If they can obtain reasonable yields of amino acids at temperatures less than 100 °C, there is a chance that any enantiomeric excesses formed via regioselective reductions on the catalytic surfaces could be preserved against the long-term probability of racemization.

    Finally, the group has moved and re-installed the high-pressure flow reactor into their hydrothermal laboratory. This summer they will replumb the system and begin long-term studies using the flow reactor and fluorescent molecular probes to detect products at extreme dilution.

    Jay Brandes Jay Brandes
    George Cody George Cody
    James Farquhar James Farquhar
    Robert Hazen Robert Hazen
    Douglas Rumble Douglas Rumble
    Nabil Boctor

    Andrey Bekker

    Shuhei Ono

    Pei-Ling Wang

    Boswell Wing

    David Johnston
    Doctoral Student

    Objective 3.1
    Sources of prebiotic materials and catalysts

    Objective 3.2
    Origins and evolution of functional biomolecules

    Objective 4.1
    Earth's early biosphere

    Objective 6.1
    Environmental changes and the cycling of elements by the biota, communities, and ecosystems

    Objective 7.1
    Biosignatures to be sought in Solar System materials