Peptides: A new clue on the origins of life

April 21, 2016

Working with Anil Mehta, a chemistry post-doctoral fellow, Childers tagged one end of peptide chains with an NMR label, and then allowed them to assemble to see if the ends would interact. The result was a bi-layer membrane with inner and outer faces and an additional, buried layer that localized functionality within the interior.

"The peptide membranes combine the long-range structure of cell membranes with the local order of enzymes," Childers said. "Now that we understand that peptide membranes are organized locally like a protein, we want to investigate whether they can function like a protein."

The goal is to direct molecules to perform as catalysts and create long-range order. "We'd really like to understand how to build something from the bottom up," Childers says. "How can we take atoms and make molecules? How can we get molecules that stick together to make nano-machines that will perform specific tasks?"

The research is part of "The Center for Chemical Evolution," a center based at Emory and Georgia Tech, for integrated research, education and public outreach focused on the chemistry that may have led to the origin of life. The National Science Foundation and the U.S. Department of Energy have funded the research.

Many groups studying the origins of life have focused on RNA, which is believed to have pre-dated living cells. But RNA is a much more complicated molecule than a peptide. "Our studies have now shown that, if you just add water, simple peptides access both the physical properties and the long-range molecular order that is critical to the origins of chemical evolution," Childers says.

Source: Emory University