Redox and pH gradients drive amino acid synthesis in iron oxyhydroxide mineral systems
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
Iron oxyhydroxide minerals, known to be chemically reactive and significant for elemental cycling, are thought to have been abundant in early-Earth seawater, sediments, and hydrothermal systems. In the anoxic Fe2+-rich early oceans, these minerals would have been only partially oxidized and thus redox-active, perhaps able to promote prebiotic chemical reactions. We show that pyruvate, a simple organic molecule that can form in hydrothermal systems, can undergo reductive amination in the
... tion in the presence of mixed-valence iron oxyhydroxides to form the amino acid alanine, as well as the reduced product lactate. Furthermore, geochemical gradients of pH, redox, and temperature in iron oxyhydroxide systems affect product selectivity. The maximum yield of alanine was observed when the iron oxyhydroxide mineral contained 1:1 Fe(II):Fe(III), under alkaline conditions, and at moderately warm temperatures. These represent conditions that may be found, for example, in iron-containing sediments near an alkaline hydrothermal vent system. The partially oxidized state of the precipitate was significant in promoting amino acid formation: Purely ferrous hydroxides did not drive reductive amination but instead promoted pyruvate reduction to lactate, and ferric hydroxides did not result in any reaction. Prebiotic chemistry driven by redox-active iron hydroxide minerals on the early Earth would therefore be strongly affected by geochemical gradients of Eh, pH, and temperature, and liquid-phase products would be able to diffuse to other conditions within the sediment column to participate in further reactions.