Natural pH Gradients in Hydrothermal Alkali Vents Were Unlikely to Have Played a Role in the Origin of Life

John Jackson

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29 Citations (Scopus)
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The hypothesis that a natural pH gradient across inorganic membranes lying between the ocean and fluid issuing from hydrothermal alkali vents provided energy to drive chemical reactions during the origin of life has an attractive parallel with chemiosmotic ATP synthesis in present-day organisms. However, arguments raised in this review suggest that such natural pH gradients are unlikely to have played a part in life’s origin. There is as yet no evidence for thin inorganic membranes holding sharp pH gradients in modern hydrothermal alkali vents at Lost City near the Mid-Atlantic Ridge. Proposed models of non-protein forms of the H+-pyrophosphate synthase that could have functioned as a molecular machine utilizing the energy of a natural pH gradient are unsatisfactory. Some hypothetical designs of non-protein motors utilizing a natural pH gradient to drive redox reactions are plausible but complex, and such motors are deemed unlikely to have assembled by chance in prebiotic times. Small molecular motors comprising a few hundred atoms would have been unable to function in the relatively thick (>1 μm) inorganic membranes that have hitherto been used as descriptive models for the natural pH gradient hypothesis. Alternative hypotheses for the evolution of chemiosmotic systems following the emergence of error-prone gene replication and translation are more likely to be correct.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1-11
Number of pages11
JournalJournal of Molecular Evolution
Issue number1-2
Early online date17 Aug 2016
Publication statusPublished - Aug 2016


  • Natural pH gradient
  • Alkali vents
  • Chemiosmotic theory
  • Origin of life


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