Nasa-funded research is exploring a theory about the origins of life that sounds like science fiction but could be based on hard scientific facts. Nasa has just given a $6 million grant to a Rutgers University-led team of scientists called ENIGMA (Evolution of Nanomachines in Geospheres and Microbial Ancestors to discover if tiny ‘machines’ lived on Earth before the earliest living organisms evolved. It could be argued that these ‘protein nanomachines’ are alien in origin, because they may have been formed by interactions between amino acids which were ‘delivered’ to Earth aboard meteorites.
The micro-mechanisms were essentially automatons which carried out specific tasks, a bit like the enzymes in our body which catalyse chemical reactions and play a vital role in everything from respiration to digestion.
‘Protein nanomachines are are enzymes that physically move,’ said Paul G. Falkowski, ENIGMA principal investigator and a distinguished professor at Rutgers University. ‘Each time we take a breath, an enzyme in every cell allows you to transfer electrons to oxygen. ‘Enzymes, like all proteins, are made up of amino acids, of which there are 20 that are used in life.