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Arts & Culture
Exploradio Origins sparks ideas and conversation with its unique and engaging 90 second nutshell approach. Each episode highlights the work of one of the more than 200 fellows at the Institute for the Science of Origins at Case Western Reserve University.

Exploradio Origins: We Came from Clay

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A. DOMBROWSKI
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FLICKR CC
Mud may have been the birthplace of life on earth.

We started out with a planet that was just rocks and water and gasses. How do you go from that to something that is basically covered with life in every possible environmental niche that you look?

"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.

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Credit THE UNIVERSITY OF AKRON /
Prof. Nita Sahai

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.