"We started out with a planet that was just rocks and water and gasses," says Professor Nita Sahai. "How do you go from that to something that is basically covered with life in every possible environmental niche that you look?"
Professor Sahai is a geochemist at the University of Akron. Geochemists usually study the makeup of Earth’s rocks and minerals, but Professor Sahai is in pursuit of the origins of life. To make a cell, you first need a membrane. Professor Sahai is researching how membranes could spontaneously form before there was life to make them.
"If you tell me that planetary scientists can figure out for me the minerology of Mars, I can tell you whether the surface charge on those minerals would be positive or negative, if there were water present, and so then we can have a prediction on whether these minerals would have helped or hindered the self-assembly of a membrane," Sahai says.
Professor Sahai’s group is also working to show that once you have this membrane, minerals may help set up an electrochemical gradient across it and, perhaps, jump-start the cell’s metabolism.
"So, we’re basically trying to do a way of generating an electrochemical gradient across a membrane using minerals as catalysts to mimic the enzymes that are in membranes in modern life," Sahai says.
With Sahai's evidence that membranes can form spontaneously, and begin the chemical reactions of life, the mystery of the origins of life may finally begin to unravel.
Exploradio Origins is a weekly feature produced in conjunction with the Institute for the Science of Origins at Case Western Reserve University. Tune in to 89.7 WKSU every Thursday afternoon during All Things Considered to listen to Exploradio Origins. You can find each segment posted online after it airs. Explore all the segments here.